Who needs a wallet when you've got a smartphone?

A user tries out the Blackberry Torch 9800 smartphone after it was unveiled at a news conference August 3, 2010 in New York City.

This week saw two major wireless carriers introducing new payment plans. Verizon announced a partnership with American Express that'll also allow customers to buy with their phones, and T-Mobile just announced plans to let customers charge online purchases directly to their phone bills.

Brad Duea, a senior vice president at T-Mobile, says the new system will be simple to use. You go to a website, find what you want to buy and tell the site to add it to your T-Mobile bill instead of charging your credit card.

On some level, the phone functions like a credit card. "We do restrict credit at a certain point," says Duea, "but it's more giving customer the ability to limit their account." T-Mobile will allow parents to set limits on how much kids can spend, and what type of content they can buy. And, says Duea, if an errant charge pops up on your bill, customer service would address it, "very similar to credit card charge."

But it's not exactly the same, warns Jeff Bliskal from the watchdog group Consumer Reports. "What governs that transaction is your relationship or your contract with the phone company," Bliskal says. "Those are not going to be same consumer protections as you would have with credit card." Credit card protections are mandated by federal regulations and laws. Phone purchases aren't.

Consumer Reports reviewed contracts from 18 wireless carriers and found in a report released this week that none provided the same level of protection as credit or debit cards have to.

Still, research director Carl Howe from the Yankee Group says smartphones could have an advantage over credit and debit cards in the long run. "The big difference with a mobile phone is we can run software in the phone that can actually locate things, it can run apps," Howe says. "Apps can be smart and that's the key diff in making our mobile money easier to manage and at the same time easier to use." In the future, phones could combine personal budgeting software with the ability to buy, letting us know when we need to hold back on spending.

Also on today's show: researchers in Japan have created a robot that can learn to do tasks it wasn't programmed to do. The robot can adapt to input from humans, the Internet and other robots.

What could possibly go wrong?

Carnegie Mellon Professor Manuela Veloso says a future with smart robots is nothing to worry about. "It's actually a rewarding thought to think we will have machines to help us in our limitations," she says. Veloso says robots could fetch our slippers, clean our house, accompany people with disabilities, "all sorts of things that have been science fiction, but we are getting closer to be able to bring robots to daily life."

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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