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Robots Ate My Job

Robots, automation, and the future of your job

David Brancaccio Mar 23, 2012
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The story starts with a message on Facebook. My buddy Paul was in contact to say he heard my voice when he called his health insurance company. My voice was automated voicemail system, he was sure of it. I called and it doesn’t sound much like me, but it got me thinking: what would it take to automate me? In other words, what would it take to turn me into a robot?

Experts say technology is advancing at an exponential rate. That’s fast. To understand exponential, put a grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard and double it every square. By the end of the board, the 64th square, it’s been calculated you would have a mountain of rice larger than Everest. And at that speed, computers, automation, robots are already doing tasks most people did not believe were possible. Note for instance the Google car’s ability to drive itself in traffic.

Technology should produce an amazing bounty for people with the advanced skills to take advantage of these developments. But what about the rest of us? While labor market experts argued for most of last one hundred years that while technology destroys jobs, it ultimately replaces them with more and better jobs. Now, some economists are worried about what is called “technological unemployment.”

Marketplace’s Economy 4.0 team has been on a voyage of discovery to look at the winners and the losers amid all this technology. Come with me to meet some amazing Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon University, including one that’s developing a stand-up comedian robot. But we also spend time with folks who lost jobs to technology. While economists say they had low-value jobs that are worth replacing, don’t tell that to them! I’ll look deeper into further evidence that I myself have been robotized. Plus, we will dive into some proposed policy solutions.

And here’s the kicker: While reporting this story I got to wondering if technology has become so pervasive in 2012 that a fellow might just be able to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific without ever having to deal with a human being. I am going to test this proposition, a very solo drive 3,200 hundred miles. I will be staying at hotels with robot desk clerks where I can check myself in with a swipe of a credit card. Food from self-serve checkout lines, EZ Pass for tolls, and robot radio stations on the sound system. I am also bringing along a robot dog we’ve just named Wilson.

What is the future for out economy amid the white heat of innovation? Robots Ate My Job, March 26 through 30 on Marketplace radio and on this website.

(Video directed by Joe Posner and Ian McAlpin, original music by Kelly Pratt)

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