Robots everywhere

From grocery self-checkout to your home accounting software to "Godzillas" working the assembly lines, technology is fundamentally changing the American workforce. Pictured here, Roboworld's Andy Roid.

Kai Ryssdal: We're gonna take some time this week -- all week, actually -- and spend it on technology and jobs. Arguably, the two biggest factors in where our economy's going. We're going to call it, "Robots Ate My Job." Who's winning and who's losing as technology becomes an ever bigger part of our lives.

It's not unreasonable to think, here in late March of 2012, that you might be able to drive clear across the country and never interact with anyone. No humans. Only machines.

Marketplace's David Brancaccio is trying to do just that. He put the Atlantic Ocean and the great state of New Jersey behind him on Saturday.


David Brancaccio: I'm refueling in Sugar Hill, Tenn., 2,229 miles to go to the Golden Gate Bridge. Technology only, avoiding human contact. Sleeping at Hyatt Place hotels that have the option of robot receptionists. Swiped myself in with my card and the key to the room comes out a slot. We're told that on balance, good and better jobs come from all the technology that makes a trip like this possible. But experts are warning this is now changing. In Pittsburgh the other day...

Brancaccio: This guy right here. Who's this?

I ran into a robot that takes queries.

Brancaccio: Here's a great question: Will robots take over the world?

Andy Roid: Will robots take over the world? Yes, and the revolution is set for a week from Saturday. Ha. OK, I'm kidding. It's this Thursday! I'm kidding again, haha.

That's "Andy Roid," the human-shape, human-sized centerpiece of at the Carnegie Science Center's Roboworld, the biggest robot exhibit on the planet.

Andy Roid: And for every job that a robot takes over from a human, there are other human jobs created.

Brancaccio: Wow.

It may be Andy's programmed to say that is because we've been worrying about technology taking our jobs since the first time someone threw a wooden shoe at a weaving machine. Legendary economist John Maynard Keynes worried about what he called "technological unemployment." And pop culture adores the subject.

"The Desk Set" clip: Do you know what he's trying to do? He's trying to replace us with a mechanical brain!

Track: In the 1957 movie "The Desk Set," the research department of a TV network gets stuck with one of those newfangled "computers" -- the size of a pipe organ. In the real world, no one denies that technology destroys loads of jobs. Look what happened to farm work as machines hit the fields. But the data kept showing that our economy continued to grow, more often than not, as technology came on line.

Kiva robot sounds at Acumen Brands

Twenty excruciatingly cute robots -- think of them as orange mice the size of vacuum cleaners -- scurry around the warehouse of Acumen Brands, an Internet retailer out of Fayetteville, Ark. The electric critters deliver entire racks, 12 shelves tall, to people who stick the merchandise into boxes for shipment, things like medical garb for ScrubShopper.com. The robots you interact with may not be as huggable as these, but they are everywhere.

NCR self-serve checkout robot: Welcome. Please scan your first item.

William Nuti: Think about this: Five years ago did you use self-checkout at a retail store?

This is the man who run runs the company.

Nuti: When you went to Hertz and use a kiosk to check in did you do that two years ago?

That makes the robots we tend to see on a daily basis.

NCR self-serve checkout robot: Thank you for using the NCR self-serve checkout.

William Nuti is CEO of NCR a company with 23,000 employees, including those with nice jobs at a new manufacturing plant in Georgia.

Nuti: The people making all of this automation are better jobs, higher-paying jobs, and frankly jobs that have a greater future.

Brancaccio: Do you worry about the bank teller who doesn't have the job any more or do you worry about the checkout clerk who doesn't have the job any more?

Nuti: No we actually enhance the opportunities for bank tellers or checkout clerks. Because they're being retrained in most businesses to move into higher-end customer services roles that -- by the way -- pay more. And have a longer life. So when we come into the picture the jobs change, but they get more valuable. They get more relevant to where the economy is going.

Brancaccio: You're not just saying that because you know there will never be a CEO kiosk?

Nuti: Ha. I hope not! I really genuinely hope not. But you never know!

But something is happening in 2012 that's sorely challenging the economy's ability to keep up. Engineers are getting very good at this technology stuff.

Andrew McAfee: Just in the past few years, we see computers start to demonstrate skills that they have never, ever had before and that used to belong to people alone.

MIT professor Andrew McAfee studies technology's effect on business. He just did a book called "Race Against the Machine," with his fellow MIT'er, economist Erik Brynnjolfson. What's happening with technology now is bordering on magical, Brynjolfsson says, but this progress has a price.

Erik Brynnjolfson: The difficulty today is that the pace and scale of that change is happening so rapidly and so pervasively that we as a society and our entrepreneurs aren't thinking of new jobs and new industries fast enough to keep pace with the jobs that are being eliminated. And that's manifesting itself not just in higher unemployment, but it's also manifesting itself in a big change in wages and the fact that median incomes today are also lower than they were a decade ago.

The MIT guys argue that the march of technology is not benefiting regular people with typical jobs. McAfee says jobs at the bottom of the scale, like cleaning hotel rooms, seem immune from robots; and technology is bringing bounty to those at toward the top. But...

McAfee: In the middle of the distribution, the middle class, if you want, seems to be getting hollowed out.

Globalization is part of this. So is the last recession. But there's now evidence that what's wrong with the labor market is not just ebb of the business cycle, but has something to do with technology -- an idea we'll keep exploring this week. Meanwhile, if robots are your business, jobs are up 44 percent this year. More on that boom tomorrow.

On the road, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: There are robots all around nowadays, even if you don't see 'em. We've got video on our website -- "Robots Ate My Job."

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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