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A trip across the country with no human contact

David Brancaccio with Robby the Robot at Carnegie Mellon University's Robot Hall of Fame. MGM Studios made Robby in the 1950s. He went on to star in movies like "Forbidden Planet," "Lost in Space" and even a Monkee's video.

We’ve never shied away from a discussion of robots on this program. Not only are they odd, delightful, vaguely cute, endless fascinating, and somewhat existentially frightening, they really are the future. Fight it if you want, but the robots are coming. In fact, it amuses the robots when you fight it.

Marketplace’s David Brancaccio has gone a step beyond just talking about robots, though. He’s doing a deep investigative experiment in participatory journalism called Robots Ate My Job. “I am now trying to see if a guy can drive clear across the country and never have to do business with any other human being,” he asks. “Has technology become that pervasive?”

It’s a little easier to understand David on the screen here than it is on the radio. Because of the restrictions of his project, we had to reach out to him by email, and then run his voice through a synthesizer program.

A trip across the country offers plenty of challenges, of course. Filling gas might be easy but what about hotels? “What allows this attempt at all is the latest innovation in electronic kiosks,” he says. “Let's call them ‘robot receptionists,’ at Hyatt Place and other hotels located near enough to each so I can try to drive between them and spend each of nights in a hotel without dealing with a human receptionist as I cross the country. “

But making a reservation is one thing, actually checking in and getting your room key is another matter. “As for the robot receptionists at the hotels: Two of them so far have taken an awful lot of swipes with the credit card to get them to work,” says David. “A little too much suspense for me, because if I have to resort to the human, my quest has failed. They do print nice little receipts on cash-register style tape. And my cardkey for the room pops out a slot.”

Here's what I wanted to know about the future: if robots are everywhere helping us out, will human interaction become more meaningful? David talked to the CEO of technology company NCR (before his trip) who said yes. “In his view his point-of-sale devices means employees will move from the cash register to inside the store or hotel so they can do higher level kinds of interactions. I noticed this at work at a set of ‘self’ checkout machines in a supermarket along my route on Sunday. A veteran store employee lorded over her four machines with wit and charm.”

And does David get lonely on the road?

He says, “Isaac Asimov novel via books on tape. Wilson the little plastic robot dog we got used off an Amazon reseller. Robot radio in the form of Pandora. How can I be lonely? Actually last night driving 400 miles into the featureless night on Interstate 40 Tennessee, Arkansas into Oklahoma, I was starting to feel like I was on that mission to Mars that as a kid I had hoped to join.“

Also on today’s program, Instagram is preparing to make the leap to Android. The photo sharing service, long a hit on iPhone, has developed a certain style with lots of urban environments, sensitivity, and artsy filters. We talk to comedian Rob Delaney who is on a quest to make the most Instagrammy Instagrams that he can.

Here are some of his favorites:

 

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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As much as I have enjoyed David Brancaccio's reporting over the years, I have to comment that he (or his writers, I cannot tell which) are missing a much bigger story about what is going on here -- and it will have dramatic consequences for our economy, and broader society, if it is not recognized, resisted and reversed.

More than the hollowing out of middle class jobs, the imperative to shrink labor costs at all costs has become the drumbeat of modern capitalism, creating what economists refer to as "increasing structural unemployment." What this means is increasing unemployment, decreasing aggregate demand, a shrinking tax base, etc; in short, a vicious downward spiral. (If only the Occupy Movement would start making these connections!)

"Business as usual", meaning economic growth as conducted up to now, will not fix this problem; it will make it worse. This is all too depressingly real, yet the economics profession for the most part has its head in the sand, and refuses to acknowledge this trend as one of foremost economic problems of our time. Those economists that are trying to call attention to such problems are ecological economists, such as Tim Jackson in "Prosperity Without Growth" or Herman Daly's many works. Even though he does not call himself such, Robert Reisch's book "Aftershock" paints much the same picture. C'mon David -- tell the real story!

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