Robots Ate My Job

Robots get personal

David Brancaccio Mar 29, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Our traveling correspondent David Brancaccio is oh-so-close to finishing his coast-to-coast reporting trip. A long lonely drive from East to West in the complete absence of human interaction all in the service of our series, “Robots Ate My Job.” In which he searches for 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 nd who’s not?

Here’s David.

David Brancaccio: Passed through Las Vegas last night and did get the chance to have some solitary fun with a huge room full of machines. The Pinball Hall of Fame at a strip mall here in town is free, so I could get in without dealing with any humans and there was a handy change device to turn bills into quarters. Time well spent, I have to say.

But I’m in the home stretch in California now. Listen to what I did to my GPS navigation device — put in the voice of our colleague, Marketplace’s Tess Vigeland, for some digital companionship along these 3,000 miles. Check it out.

Tess Vigeland on GPS: Carefully David, turn around when you can.

Brancaccio: I’m doing my best.

Digitizing Tess leads me to why I went down this road. One day, I got word on Facebook that I, myself, might have been turned into a robot of sorts. A buddy wrote that he’d called his insurance company and swears that the digitized voice at United Concordia health care was yours truly. Really?

United Concordia recording: If you are not currently a member and would like additional information…

That doesn’t sound like me at all.

United Concordia recording: Press two.

I’ll tell you who it does kinda sound like:

NPR: Support for NPR comes from NPR member stations.

So, not my problem. Or so I thought until it hit me: Didn’t my old boss once sell my voice to science? I tracked down the guy who started Marketplace, Jim Russell, via Skype. A robot version of me appealed to him right away.

Jim Russell: It would have been absolutely terrific to have someone who would do my bidding and never question it.

He’s kidding, I think. But sure enough, Jim did remember giving recordings of me to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Russell: They were testing whether machines could understand English and convert the audio into text.

Not the other way around. Anyway, my education has got to be worth something when it comes to keeping me safe from technology. But an MIT professor who’s studied this, Andrew McAfee, says a degree or two is no protection for many of us.

Andrew McAfee: Let’s say you went on to medical school and then went on to be a pathologist — which is one the most training intensive, highly-specialized fields in medicine.

Researchers got a machine to identify cancer in slides of breast tissue.

McAfee: And it did a pretty good job — was at least as good as an extremely, highly-trained human pathologist.

Lucky for me, I didn’t study pathology. But hear what Gregg Pascal Zachary, who teaches at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism, warns his students if they don’t stay creative.

Gregg Pascal Zachary: Robots are going to take their jobs! Robot journalists are already appearing. There will be more of them. They’re cheap, they’re efficient!

Zachary, who wrote for years for the Wall Street Journal, says assignments that lend themselves to this are ritualized, predictable events, like a basketball game or run-of-the-mill crime stories. And here’s a man who won a Pulitzer Prize for a news-bot he developed at the St. Petersburg Times:

Matt Waite: If there is a piece of data or a story that is essentially the same every time and to do it is a repetitive task, it is an immediate candidate for automation.

Matt Waite built software that takes public info from police computers and assembles crime stories for the paper’s website. Now, Waite heads up what’s called the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Traffic Reporter: Still a five mile delay to exit 40.

Drones. As in who needs human traffic reporters when a pilotless drone aircraft can someday beam images of traffic jams right to your smartphone? Gregg Zachary at ASU says there are other flavors of journalism that are also open to machines.

Zachary: And business reporting is especially like that.

No kidding. Go to and look for bylines with the name “Narrative Science.” That’s a company that uses “artificial intelligence” to transform data into “stories and insights.” And as for reporters, while the ride will be jarring, maybe it’s an opportunity.

Zachary: So we’ll have a new wave of job destruction in journalism and a new incentive for really committed journalists to bring more intelligence to what they do.

Anyone who feels they’ve got their job down to a science, executing on a similar plan over and over, could find themselves vulnerable. Of course, there is one option if we don’t want robots horning in, Matt Waite says.

Waite: Well the wonderful thing is that at some point we can just turn them off. We still have that power.

Just flick off the switch. Short of that, what can we do to make sure the human labor force does get the most benefit out of technology? Some of those ideas, tomorrow.

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

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