Robots Ate My Job

Robots across America

David Brancaccio Mar 30, 2012

Last Saturday, car packed, in my driveway outside New York City. It was a little much to ask my wife Mary. First, me dropping out of our busy lives, asking for no phone or Skype conversations for the better part of a week. Secondly, honey, can I record the sound of our goodbye kiss?

Sunglasses, credit cards and a car loaded with four competing GPS navigation devices, plus Wilson the robot dog the Marketplace Economy 4.0 team got used from an Amazon reseller.

I didn’t start measuring miles until I got to the starting point, an hour away at the beach at Sandy Hook, N.J.

After rinsing with some Atlantic Ocean water to make it official, and filling up an old water bottle with Atlantic sand as a souvenir, off we go.

On the radio — not public radio, but music from Pandora — the robot radio station where you put in a favorite musician or band and an algorithm does the DJ picks.

Two MIT professors — an economist and a business professor — had been talking to me about what happens to jobs when innovation reaches this fever pitch and takes off exponentially. It’s fabulous for many with the skills to create technology or create with technology. But the professors are deeply worried about people in the middle, even people with college educations, where technological innovation can now pose a threat to more and more livelihoods. I’ve been reporting on that all week. But on this road trip, I wanted to know if technology has become so widespread, you can go 3,200 miles — coast-to-coast — and never have to do business with a human being.

I supposed for diversion, there’s the aforementioned Wilson. The plastic robot dog can haltingly amble along and sense when it’s run into a corner.

The problem is Wilson’s cute and cute can attract the attention of other humans which is not the goal of this journey. One guy in the parking lot wants to know if I have to clean up AA batteries after Wilson. Haha. I’m not talking to humans, so I awkwardly shrug and turn away.

After driving 462 miles the first day, it takes multiple, suspenseful swipes of my credit card to get satisfaction from this robot receptionist at the Hyatt Place hotel in Roanoke.

It’s an airport style kiosk, and the key reason I chose this route, is that these Hyatts are spaced the right distance apart to get across the country without having to interact with a human receptionist. A passkey to the room noses out a slot in the kiosk. I then sneak into my room a small microwave oven in a piece of wheelie luggage and nuke a very late dinner out of previously-frozen spring rolls and chicken tetrazzini.

The next day it’s on to Nashville, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, where seek some wisdom about from the ghost of the godfather of robot thinking, Isaac Asimov.

At night, driving west on featureless I-40 into Oklahoma, I switched over for more of one of the audiobooks I brought along.

Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov, 1957. It’s wall-to-wall robots in a future universe, where all earthlings are the 99 percent and the 1-percenters live on their own fancy planets. But a key theme relevant to my journey keeps knocking me over the head.

A major distinction Asimov draws is between seeing one another in person or viewing their image electronically. In the book, they have the electronic viewing totally down so it looks real and nearly all interactions between people are virtual, viewed through technology. Characters often get sick to their stomach if they’re actually next to each other, in person.

I’m crossing the entire length of this diverse country, and I’m only connected by electronic viewing, not seeing actually. The car has a big GPS screen with a digitalized Google Earth image of the very landscape I’m passing. That’s what I’m mainly viewing, the lame virtual version. My wife sent me an email about her poetry reading last night. I sent her in return an audio file of me in the car singing the Little Feat song about Tucumcari when I passed through Tucumcari, N.M. I’m finding the interaction unfullfilling and it ain’t living. We talk about the personal connections enabled by texting, skyping, social media. But is this really where we’re headed as technology increasingly invades all business and personal relationships?

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

I’m doing my best, dear colleague. Turning around where I can, at Meteor Crater Arizona.

I did figure out how to put Tess’s voice into the navigation device. It’s nice to hear a familiar voice that’s not my own. After 2,600 of possibly 3,200 miles, sure I feel disconnected, but I’m realizing I’ve been in training for this. I’ve been on the road on business trips for 25 years. You fly non-stop from Newark to Delhi, not speaking to a soul on the plane for 14 hours, sit sullenly in a taxi to a hotel where you sit checking emails until you collapse — any frequent business travelers knows this scene — and at least right now I can open the moonroof and get some real air. Two more days of driving now to Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Editors Note: Two days later, David arrived in San Francisco and gave us a call to tell us how his final Western stretch went.

Tess Vigeland: Where exactly are you?

David Brancaccio: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, on a very chilly, overcast morning, but it looks like I made it.

Vigeland: So how many miles are we talking here?

Brancaccio: Three thousand two hundred sixty and change –- from Sandy Hook, N.J., all the way here. It wasn’t the most direct route, but I made it.

Vigeland: Here’s the big question: Did you manage to pull it off? Did you just keep to robots and computers and electronics?

Brancaccio: Well, I got clear across the country only transacting business with machines. There were no commercial transactions involving human beings. But it’s a big country and humans are social creatures, and I did have a couple of run-ins involving an ear of corn and someone I’ll call the “Wizard of Oz.”

Vigeland: Let’s start with the ear of corn.

Brancaccio: As you’ve been hearing, I’ve been getting all my food through self-checkout at grocery stores. So, I’m in Roanoake, Virginia on Sunday morning worried about eating too many TV dinner-style processed-food meals. I thought, “All right, let me get something quasi-fresh.” So I grab an ear of corn. Well, you know what happens at the self-checkout, right? Produce confounds the system – there are numbers and codes. But this woman comes swooping in – the nicest woman by the name of Pat Burton.

Vigeland: Were you like, “Stay away from me!”

Brancaccio: Well, I know. It’s hard to know exactly how to manage that social situation, even though I thought long and hard about what to do. She’s the human who lords over the four checkouts at a Krogers store. She has a personality the size of Virginia and was very much intent on helping me get smoothly through the checkout with my corn. So I got out of their by the skin of my teeth. And I did manage to ultimately do it myself.

Vigeland: Did you talk to her at all?

Brancaccio: Yeah, words were exchanged.

Vigeland: Oh no.

Brancaccio: Yeah, what am I going to do, act like I’m mute? So yeah, there were words there. She’s a lovely person. She didn’t like the machines much. She said the software: not so good. So they have people like her watching over things.

Vigeland: And we mentioned that early on the show as well…that is one of the problems with the self-checkout. You mentioned you were in Oz, so… Kansas, I presume?

Brancaccio: Well, it was actually Oklahoma City. It was midnight the other night, and exhausted, I stumble in and I’m coaxing the self-check-in robot at the hotel to take my credit card when this smiling man shows up. His name is Oz, and he’s apparently the night manager, and he’s seen my name on the reservations, and Tess, he’s a big fan of the show and wanted to say hi. So what am I going to do? So I shook his hand and then I checked in with the machine. But yeah, another encounter with a human.

Vigeland: All right, so for 3,200 miles you’re pretty much alone with your devices and, of course, your adorable robot puppy Wilson.

Brancaccio: He’s sitting right next to me on the sand here.

Vigeland:Well, that might not be good for his joints, but, at any rate, did this change you in any way?

Brancaccio: It’s a lot of time to ponder existance sitting behind the wheel for that long. And I’ve got to take a vow of abstinence moving forward. I’m talking about some technological abstinence. It may not be that robots are eating my journey, it’s my own compulsion, really, to bury myself in technology. That’s got to change. I got to add some more real-life conversations to the general mix, pull my head out of the iPad screen and my smart phone and all that stuff. I mean, there’s a large country and a large world around us, and too often this technology just absorbs too much of our attention.

Vigeland: David, it’s nice to be able to talk to you again.

Brancaccio:It’s wonderful to talk to a flesh-and-blood human being.

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