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Robots Ate My Job

Robots and people can all get along

David Brancaccio Mar 30, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: When last we heard from our roving correspondent David Brancaccio, he was on the loose somewhere in Nevada bound for San Francisco and the end of a coast-to-coast drive distinguishable for this: the absence of human interaction. Is it possible, in the changing economy in which we live, to literally drive across the country and not do business with a single actual person? And if so, what does that mean for humans and the jobs we do?

Here’s David one last time for our series, “Robots Ate My Job.”

David Brancaccio: Mithun Jacob is practicing surgery.

Mithun Jacob: It’s a very complicated task so sometimes I forget what I need to do next.

I said “practicing.” Lucky for all concerned, the patient’s a dummy — plastic. Mithun is a Ph.D. student at Purdue’s Industrial Engineering program. He’s in the computer lab, testing out a robot he helped create. It’s called Gestonurse — think of as a robotic “scrub nurse” or “scrub tech.” And its job is to hand over surgical instruments during an operation. Gestonurse is designed to solve a potentially fatal challenge in the real operating room.

Juan Wachs: One of the problems is miscommunications between the surgical tech and the surgeon, I ask for an instrument and I receive a different instrument.

That’s Dr. Juan Wachs, the professor who helped design this, a machine that’s also good at preventing what he calls “retained instruments.” Retained, as in surgical tools being sewed up inside patients by mistake.

Wachs: This is one example where you take human-robot collaboration, human-robot interaction, human-robot work to the same place where the stakes are the highest and if we can make it there, that will be great.

Note all the togetherness. The idea is partnership with robots. Gestonurse could be in hospitals within five years. It makes sense that we get our economy ready for this, and this idea of machine-human collaboration could be a cornerstone about for how to think about the workforce of the future.

Warehouse noise

Daniel Collins used to have to run miles around the warehouse for Acumen Brands, a relatively small Internet retailer, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Daniel Collins: Now these guys do the walkin’ for us. So that’s really good. Haha.

Among his co-workers in the warehouse are eight humans and a platoon of robots that scoot along like hovercraft the size of snow tires.

John James: Our warehouse guys would climb up like ring-tailed lemurs on the side of these shelves and pull these huge boxes with 30 or 40 items in it, rifle through them, and find the one that they think was really good.

That’s John James, CEO of Acumen, which owns brands like TheHecticGourmet.com and TrailsEdge.

James: You know, compare that to today, we have robots that drive the shelf over to the worker and a laser shines down from the heavens above and points to the exact item to pull out. Scan it with a bar code, and confirms they got the right item. Even an idiot like me could do it, they’ll even let me pick an order.

These robots are all the rage at the big retailers. In fact just last week, Amazon bought the company that makes these robots, Kiva Systems, for three quarters of a billion dollars. But for a small company like Acumen, the robots triggered something unexpected. More jobs for people, not fewer. And not just more, but better.

James: Without the robots there’s no way we could have grown our business this fast. Ah, you know, we have six or eight guys in the warehouse now and we’re able to create higher paying white-collar jobs of marketers, programmers, developers, much needed in the state of Arkansas.

So, human-machine collaboration is one way to surf the wave of automation. But what else? How about training teachers in technology to make sure that future workers are super skilled? Or how about entrepreneurship beyond elite business schools to encourage more middle-class people to start cool enterprises that hire people? Plus, there’s this idea from MIT economist David Autor: Why not pay to retrain workers when it’s innovation that eats their job?

David Autor: You can’t blame Bill Gates for taking your job, you can’t blame Steve Jobs — that’s technology, not trade. We could do more and would benefit from doing more to prevent that kind dislocation from being career ending.

Meanwhile, researchers are well aware that they can’t build a future where technology does the all the work and humans are left sipping big gulps in front of the flat screen.

David Bourne: What I’m really get excited about is getting people and robots to work together.

David Bourne is a principal scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Normally you think of people programming machines to install parts in a factory. Instead, Bourne’s team made a robot that uses a beam to guide humans to place parts correctly.

Bourne: So basically it’s like having your computer console everywhere in the world. Wow.

Teamwork of the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” kind — that could wildly speed up custom manufacturing and rejuvenate this beleaguered sector. Imagine going to buy a new car, Bourne says, and picking out not just the color, but the custom shape, for delivery in a couple of days?

Bourne: You could pick up your new Batmobile that you have designed yourself. How amazing would that be? And you’d be really excited to buy it and pay for it. It’s mind-boggling.

As long as all this human-machine partnership produces the kind of salaries for living, breathing human beings that would allow us to afford these innovations.

Ryssdal: We have tracked down Mr. Brancaccio mere miles from his destination. And David, first of all I have to say I’m the first human you’ve talked to in a week. Right?

Brancaccio: Yeah, what a treat it is to talk to you as the first human.

Ryssdal: So let me ask you though. The theme of this thing was can you do it, and yes you clearly did. But was it worth it, man? Was it hard and lonely and isolating?

Brancaccio: It was pretty alienating. But you know what Kai, you and me, guys like me, men and women, have been in training for this. We spend a lot of our time already buried in our iPad screens and smartphones, so I was ready for the experience of loneliness ’cause we seem to do it almost every day. But I’ll tell you, I wasn’t quite successful. I couldn’t avoid human contact on a number of occasions. There was a supermarket self-service checkout with a super duper customer service person who insisted on helping me with an ear of corn that I couldn’t scan. And there was a night manager at another hotel who’s a big fan of your show, Kai, and he wanted to shake my hand. So I wasn’t entirely alone in the end, but what I could do, what I was able to do, is I got coast to coast without ever transacting business with another human being, only machines.

Ryssdal: Yeah. David Brancaccio and our series “Robots Ate My Job.” He’s almost done. David, good work.

Brancaccio: Thank you very much.

Ryssdal: Our series was produced by Ann Heppermann with Stan Alcorn and Eliza Ronalds-Hannon. There is oh so much more from our series. Of course, pictures from the robotic nurse, videos as well, and the whole series, all the stories — click here to see it all.

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