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Robots Ate My Job

Good robots make jobs

David Brancaccio Mar 27, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Marketplace’s David Brancaccio is making a very solo car trip this week, a long lonely coast-to-coast drive in pursuit of the answer to this question: As technology becomes more and more powerful in our lives and in this economy, who’s winning and who’s losing? Who’s working and who’s not?

Here’s David with another installment of Robots Ate my Job.

David Brancaccio: It’s day four after leaving the beach in New Jersey an I’m outside Oklahoma City now, in 44 miles it will be the halfway point. I’m taking my travel buddy, Wilson the Robot Dog, for a walk in the parking lot before getting back into the car.

Wilson the Robot Dog barks

Try listening to that for another 1,600 miles. My silver plastic pal in his own AA battery powered way is a very rudimentary virtual companion and for people who know how to design, build or operate more cutting-edge robots it’s a golden age of full employment — as I discovered before the trip when visited one of the top robotics programs in the world. At least one of the receptionists at Carnegie Mellon University is a bit of an odd bird.

Tank: Hello, how may I help you?

Marion LeFleur, “Tank” to his friends, is an animated head shining from a nodding, swiveling computer screen. Got questions? He generally has answers.

Brancaccio: So Tank, I’m looking for room 2111.

Tank: File check. You can take the elevators down to the 2nd floor where the room is located.

Tank is a project of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute down the hall, where its students are working on some wild stuff: snake robots that can squirm into tight spots for search and rescue. There’s Herb, the robot butler that can learn to navigate around the house to someday help people with disabilities. There are even robot stand-up comedians.

Robot stand-up comedian: Any of you like television? I find it incredibly educational. Actually, as soon as someone turns it on, I go into the other room and read.

OK, so not sidesplitting. But that’s not the point. In a world where humans and machines increasingly work together, robots have to learn pay attention, to read social cues. Our economy may depend on it and if you don’t believe me…

President Barack Obama: Hello, hello, hello.

How about the president of the United States?

Obama: You might not know this, but one of my responsibilities as commander in chief is to keep an eye on robots. And I’m pleased to report that the robots you manufacture here seem peaceful.

Last June at Carnegie Mellon, President Obama announced a half-billion-dollar program to invest in new technologies. It’s part of the administration’s National Robotics Initiative to improve manufacturing and the betting is to create jobs, not take them away, as so often is the worry with robots. And the demand for robotics skills is up by more than 40 percent this past year. Just look at the “Where Are They Now” alumni page on the Robotic’s Institute’s website: Facebook, Intel, Google. Talk about the economic winners. But it’s important to realize that robotics isn’t limited to Ph.D.-types working at the technological cutting edge at fancy universities.

David Novak Jr: The technical term for this robot is Godzilla.

That’s David Novak, Jr. He’s 37 and a skilled maintenance technician at Toyota’s Motor Manufacturing plant in southern Indiana. His job is to keep robots here working.

Novak Jr: If, say, this robot doesn’t pick up that part I’m in there trying to figure out why.

He points to a flashing light on the overhanging panel.

Novak Jr: That means there’s a problem with that robot on that side of the line.

These robots are huge, like a T-Rex, and fast. At Toyota, robots do dangerous and repetitive work — lifting the underbelly of cars and welding the same parts again and again. Note also there are a few thousand human workers at this Toyota plant. And just a few weeks ago the company announced 400 new jobs here.

At Toyota, robot techs make between $42,000-69,000 a year — a very good wage for southern Indiana. Novak owns his home and is raising two daughters. He has a two-year associate’s degree from nearby Vincennes University, specializing in robotics technology.

Brett McCandless: Like on this one right here, like program it over here and over there and run it back and forth at 100 percent speed.

Brett McCandless teaches robotics at Vincennes.

McCandless: We’ll do an assembly application where they incorporate a robot with a vision system to inspect parts.

He says nearly every week a company calls the school trying to hire his students — Toyota, Sony, Rolls-Royce. Vincennes’ technology associates degree program has a 95 percent job placement rate and students make about $40,000 starting off. What we are experiencing here is the act of robots creating jobs. But that’s not all they do to the workforce.

It’s late in the day and McCandless stands in the hallway after class. “When you think about how fast technology moves,” he says, “You start to see every job in a new light.”

Vacuum sound

Just then, a janitor pushes a vacuum round a corner.

McCandless: You see that right there? OK, that’s a potential job to be replaced by a robot.

Right now, humans can use old fashioned elbow grease to clean all kinds of nooks and crannies that robots can’t. What happens when the day comes where a robot cleaning crew becomes practical? It gives McCandless pause.

McCandless: What do you care if it runs all day long? You’re not paying it by the hour. It’s scary actually. Where do all these people go that we can replace with machines? I don’t have the answer to that.

And when the robots do take over jobs? That’s tomorrow.

From the road, I’m David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Robots are everywhere. Watch an interview with one — click here.

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