11:00 am
Wed April 4, 2012

Robots Creep Into Every Corner Of Life



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We've all become accustomed to robots on the assembly line. We don't even think about automatic doors and the card swipe that lets us fill up when the gas station is closed. But Marketplace special correspondent David Brancaccio recently drove across the country with the goal of never speaking to another human being along the way.

He did meet a robot comic, hotel check-in kiosks and a robot receptionist.

DAVID BRANCACCIO, BYLINE: So Tank(ph), I'm looking for Room 2111.

TANK: I'll check. You can take the elevators down to the second floor where the room is located.

CONAN: On the odyssey, some claimed robots create more and better jobs. Others took a darker view. Where have you been surprised to meet a robot? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, 30 years after the Falkland's War, a new conflict between Britain and Argentina in the South Atlantic. But first, David Brancaccio joins us from member station KJZZ in Mesa, Arizona. He's a special correspondent for Marketplace. His new series, "Robots Ate My Job." Nice to have you with us today.

BRANCACCIO: Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And Tank was the robot receptionist you encountered at Carnegie Mellon University, which is, well, the source of all these problems.

BRANCACCIO: Exactly. They have the Robotics Institute there, and they are a hotbed of research into this stuff. I'll tell you, if you are a student in that program there, you have a job for life. In fact, I asked some of these Ph.D. candidates in the Robotics Institute: So, do your parents call you, as all parents seem to call their offspring at college, and worry about where they're going to find work? And not one of them is worried about that.

CONAN: Because this is the expanding field, in fact expanding so fast we can't think of applications quickly enough.

BRANCACCIO: No, it's just amazing. I met a young man from southwest Virginia who has a snake robot that crawls into small apertures to do search and rescues, for instance after an earthquake. We met an amazing woman named Anka(ph) who has - they're finally cracking this problem, Neal.

Robots are great on the factory floor, right, or, you know, where you know where the pathways are. But they haven't been able to figure out, really, how to get them into homes. Anka is working on this caregiver robot that could learn your apartment, learn your house and give you a hand, especially for people with disabilities.

The scientist, the professor who is also working with Anka on this said the other day they got the robot to successfully pick up 800 mugs of coffee. And I said: Wow, isn't that cool? And he said: Yeah, but the only thing anyone remembers is the four it dropped.


BRANCACCIO: So a work in progress.

CONAN: A work in progress. But the fact is these applications are coming faster and faster and faster and faster.

BRANCACCIO: And it's affecting the workplace. That's what I was most interested in. I was interested in the future of work. I have this series, Economy 4.0, on Marketplace that looks at the future of the economy, and for over 100 years, really since the Industrial Revolution, what economists have been saying - and you've heard it, I've heard it - which is that yes, of course technology destroys jobs.

When they brought mechanization onto farms, most people lost their jobs, but technology creates better jobs, if not for the people who lost their jobs then for their kids, better jobs and more jobs, and that has been generally the case since the Industrial Revolution.

But now we have some smart people reflecting on this, and they're worried about maybe something is different now. Maybe technology is moving ahead so quickly that the jobs supposedly being created have not caught up, and it's very interesting. The argument is, and we can develop this as we talk, Neal, is that it's hurting the middle, the middle class more than it is people at the top or at the bottom.

CONAN: Because at the bottom, the exception being that home care robot, as soon as she doesn't drop any coffee cups, maybe she'll take a job. But right now, those kinds of jobs - janitors' jobs, things like that - people who make up the rooms in motels and hotels, these are bottom-end jobs, those seem pretty safe.

BRANCACCIO: Right, now it is possible that clever engineers could come up with a janitor robot, but would it be cost-effective because the human may just be cheaper, actually in perpetuity. And at the very top, if you are a person, for instance the students at Carnegie Mellon creating robots, or if you're a person more widely creating with robots, creating with technology, it's a golden age, really.

But in the middle, even people - and this is the part that scared me - people with college educations, even if you have a graduate degree, there could be a piece of technology that can do what you do and do it better.

CONAN: The example you gave in the series was the pathologist, a branch of medicine that requires many years of study.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, it was interesting. I was hoping that maybe my master's degree in journalism was going to protect me, and a professor at MIT who studied this pointed out this pathology robot. Now, pathology is one of the toughest, most training-intensive parts of medicine, and now apparently there's a computer that has looked at breast tissue and identified cancer about as well as a human being. So even the pathology job isn't protected.

CONAN: We want to hear from you in the audience. Where is the most surprising place you have encountered a robot? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, We'll start with Ed(ph), and Ed's with us from Racine in Wisconsin.

ED: Yeah, the robots are starting to invade your bailiwick. Local talk shows here are using robots to screen out left-wing callers from right-wing talk-show programs, and it's just a matter of time. But we think that the right-wing talk-show hosts are robots anyway, but...


CONAN: Well, that's another story. But what does it sound like when you call? And presumably, the robot is ideologically neutral, it's being programmed by somebody.

ED: Oh no, the robot understands the phone numbers that you're calling from, and they're - if you repetitively call, they feed that into the (technical difficulty) you don't even get on the program. So it's gotten to that point now, it's terrible. We in organized labor didn't fight this in the 1980s when Reagan jammed it down our throats, and here we are.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you know, it's interesting, what got me down this whole road about what technology might be doing to jobs is just this: I got a call from a buddy of mine in D.C., and he had called his health care company and swore that the digitized voice when he got into voicemail at the health insurance company was me.

And he calls me up. He goes: Is that what you - did you do that? And I denied this. I didn't do this. But it reminded me that a million years ago, an old boss at Marketplace, Jim Russell, had sold my voice to science.


BRANCACCIO: And I tracked this guy down, and he said: Yeah, it was to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. But he reassured me it wasn't to synthesize a Marketplace host, it was to in fact use what we were doing on Marketplace to see if machines could understand what we were saying, OK.

But that then led to the next bit of research, that showed that in fact journalism is becoming digitized and robotized even as we speak, Neal. If you go to Forbes, the business publication, if you go to Forbes online and look for a byline on some of the pieces that are posted there, if you look for the byline narrative sciences, that's a company in which a computer writes the news story.

CONAN: Really?

BRANCACCIO: It has some sort of algorithm...

CONAN: The who, what, where, why, when story, the algorithm?

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's probably not the in-depth feature story, Neal, in which he went to a developing country and came back with some important multi-layered story of injustice. It is probably the story about corporate profits, where the machine - anything really repetitive, sports reporting lends itself to computers writing the stories.

And I have a journalism professor actually just up the road at the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU who says to me - he tells his students, really, that if they think journalism is calling one side, then calling someone on the other side of the story, then sort of brief synthesis in the middle, that a robot has already taken that job.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Michael(ph), Michael with us from Denver.


CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead please.

MICHAEL: Oh, I'm on the air. Hi, Neal.


MICHAEL: My name's Mike Plotnik(ph), I'm an OB/GYN in Greeley, Colorado. And for about the last year, I've been doing the bulk of my laparoscopies with a robot, the robotically assisted Da Vinci System. And I can tell you that last I heard, about a third of hysterectomies in Colorado are being done robotically, so...

CONAN: And by robot, do you mean you're using what - you're controlling a machine remotely?

MICHAEL: There is a - we actually hook up standard laparoscopes, although they're a little bit different. We insert them into the patient, and then I actually leave the surgical field and go to a console in the corner of the room. And I put my hands into little controlling devices, and the robotic components enables me to move my hands in ways that I would not normally be able to do.

I can rotate my hand around two and a half times, which I certainly couldn't do it...

CONAN: Those were called - are they still called Waldos from the old Robert Heinlein science-fiction story?

MICHAEL: We don't call them Waldo. The Northern Colorado Medical Center purchased the robot a few years ago, and it's quite the wonder. It enables me to do things that I could never have done before. And these patients can now go home the same day. So I can do a very big surgery, take out a very big uterus, and the woman can really be home six hours later.

BRANCACCIO: Mike, you're probably loving this, right, because it doesn't replace you. It's just sort of a colleague who works alongside you, this robot.

MICHAEL: Oh, well, I immerse myself in the robot. Yeah, I actually called my mom when we started doing it, and I said: Mom, the Xbox paid off.


CONAN: So I'm glad it paid off finally. Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: David Brancaccio, this would be an example of the good robot. In other words, a lot of people make very good money making this robot, and it doesn't replace anybody.

BRANCACCIO: Yes, exactly, and what's interesting is we spent a little bit of time with another robot with pretensions for a career in the medical field, a robotic scrub nurse. It was called GestoNurse, and it essentially passes the tools over to the surgeon. And whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective because if you're a scrub nurse, and the potential is maybe you might get replaced by this piece of technology, perhaps you're a little worried.

If you're the patient, maybe not so much because this robotic scrub nurse takes careful account of all the surgical instruments, to be absolutely sure that none get left inside after they sew you up. So the idea is that they want to make outcomes, surgical outcomes, better, in which case they're using robots to try it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sue(ph) in Portland: My housemate is a milk tester. She drives around to dairies testing the milk for quality. She told me about a robotic milking machine the cows can use to milk themselves whenever they want. This is amazing. It sits in the cow yard, and the cows can use it whenever they like, as opposed to on a human schedule.

BRANCACCIO: That's amazing, it'll let the cow decide.

CONAN: Let the cow decide. There's a concept. David Brancaccio, stay with us. We're talking about his series "Robots Ate My Job," that's the series he did as a correspondent, special correspondent for Marketplace. So tell us: Where have you been surprised to find a robot? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. And there's a development in the case against the men accused of planning the attacks of September the 11th. The Pentagon announced today the trial of five men facing terrorism and murder charges, including the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will take place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Stay tuned to NPR for more on that story as we learn more throughout the day.

Robots are all around us, integrated into our lives in ways we may not always think about. Sure, that check-in kiosk at the airport is kind of a robot. So is an ATM. What about the friend – friendly digital accountant that guides you through TurboTax or Siri, helping you find your way to the closest drug store?

Marketplace's David Brancaccio was struck by this steady encroachment of robots, who tried to drive across the country without ever speaking with a single human being, came pretty close.

So where have you been surprised to interact with a robot? Call and tell us what happened, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is David Brancaccio, and David, as you were making the drive, all right, we figured out there's a way to check in automatically at hotels. What did you do about food?

BRANCACCIO: I went down to the local grocery stores along the route, and I did self-check-out, and the solution to warming up the food was a little clumsy but effective. I had a microwave oven I stuck in the trunk of the car, and I hid it away in one of those wheelie carry-on luggage things, and I snuck it into the...

CONAN: Oh because the hotels don't want you to bring it in.

BRANCACCIO: Probably not, you know, making macaroni and cheese and fish late at night in the hotel.


BRANCACCIO: But it worked. It worked fine. I did have my first scrape with a human being on that 3,200-mile drive at one of those self-check-outs. I was thinking: Do I really want to eat all this TV dinner stuff the whole week? And so I got a fresh piece of produce. It happened to be an ear of corn. And, you know, you've tried the self-check-outs. That's - the robots at the cashier, the cashier robots are often confounded by the fresh produce.

And there was a woman at a supermarket in Roanoke, Virginia, and her job is to lord over the self-check-out lanes. Her name is Pat(ph). And she was full of customer service enthusiasm, and she was trying to help me, and I was trying to, in a delicate way, extricate myself, not wanting to deal with humans for the week.

I did get the ear of corn, and it was the one healthy thing I ate all week.

CONAN: Well, joining us now from a studio at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is Andrew McAfee, the principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT and co-author of a book called "Race Against the Machine." Nice to have you with us today.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Hi Neal. Hi David.


CONAN: And you were one of the people that David consulted before starting out on his trip, and there are some robots you told him that are so advanced they can take on jobs in, well, we've been talking about fields like science, jobs that require humans - that would require humans to complete years of schooling.

MCAFEE: Yeah, the robots are spreading all throughout the economy. But Neal, I want to go back to something you said earlier in our segment, which is you identified - you talked about this as a problem. And I want to be really clear: Technical progress is not a problem for an economy. It's one of the best things that can happen in an economy.

CONAN: So this advancement is tremendous news, and we talked about good robots. There are, by implication, bad robots, people lose their jobs.

MCAFEE: Well, there are bad robots in the sense they will put some people out of work, and in some ways, technical progress is bad news for some kinds of employee. It's great news for basically all kinds of consumer. I just want to make sure that we keep that in mind. However, losing your job to a robot is never fun.

CONAN: Never fun, and as David was suggesting earlier, it is the people in the middle who seem to be most vulnerable to losing their jobs.

MCAFEE: Yeah, the average - or the average worker in America does not have a college degree and is not doing physical labor. So they're doing kind of routine-knowledge work. That is squarely in the sights of automation and better computers and better robots these days, especially as they get better at recognizing speech, producing speech, pattern matching, answering questions, all these abilities we've seen them demonstrate recently.

These are going to have a big impact. They're already having a big impact, right in the middle of the workforce. Now as we talked about earlier, they are also encroaching both up and down.

CONAN: Up and down, so this window is widening. You talked about the hourglass economy, it's the people in the middle getting squeezed.

MCAFEE: Yeah, and one of the things that I find really interesting is that it's not just people in the middle anymore. There are some folk, like we've talked about, who go through a lot of education, very expensive training, and they're finding that at least some of what they do is right within the - right in the sights of the technical revolution that's going on these days.

We mentioned a pathologist. In many ways, a lawyer, someone who participates in a discovery process, is just pattern-matching across a huge number of documents. Computers are better at that than we are.

CONAN: And David, we tend to think, sometimes, we think back to those jobs in agriculture from a century ago, and, well, these were not exactly - not to get too nostalgic about it, these were difficult, tough, low-paying jobs. People who worked in those businesses did not live what a lot of us would think was the best of lives.

And some of the jobs on those factory floors, good, honest work yes, like the farming work, too, but a little soul-destroying to be welding the same piece of equipment 87 times in a row.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's interesting, I mean, economists refer to them as bad jobs and that the idea would be that technology would bring better ones. But we talked to someone who has one of these - at least what some economists might regard as not such a great job. A checkout clerk at a supermarket has to do that over and over, year after year.

It turns out the woman is from Encino, California, and she comes from a long line of supermarket checkout clerks. She says she's third generation. And I asked her, I said: That's not such a great job? And she doesn't see it that way. She enjoys the interactions that she has with her customers. She gets health care coverage through that particular job. She would be happy to do it until retirement, and she doesn't want any economist telling her it's no good, yet as we can see, there's technology that can do what she does quite effectively.

CONAN: And as we consider the future, Andrew McAfee, how quickly is this advancing?

MCAFEE: Quicker and quicker, all the time. So I relied really heavily in my teaching for a bunch of years on a book written in 2004, very carefully researched, where the author said, as the Exhibit A, computers are not going to learn to drive cars. It's such a complex thing to do, there are so many skills involved that that is going to be defensible human labor territory for the foreseeable future.

Fast-forward six years, and Google announces that it's been driving cars around American roads for hundreds of thousands of miles, no human input and just about a flawless track record. So the astonishing thing is how quickly progress is coming with technology and how it's overturning a lot of our assumptions about the comparative mix of human and digital labor.

CONAN: Which raises questions about artificial intelligence that - raised by many of your colleagues over there at MIT.

MCAFEE: Yeah, and computers are expanding their skills much, much more quickly than we are. Digital progress is a lot faster than human evolution.

CONAN: So as we consider the future of these jobs, OK, technological progress is a good thing, if not for the people run over by the new robotic steamroller, then for everybody else. But is there a point at which you have to say, wait a minute, maybe this equation's going the other way?

MCAFEE: Well, trying to slow down or stop technical progress would be about as bad an idea as closing all the schools and ripping up all the roads in an economy. It's just a terrible thing to even contemplate. But your question is a really interesting one.

I believe that these science-fiction technologies that we have today, are going to bring us, in the fairly near future, into kind of a science-fiction economy. And it's an economy where there's a lot of work being done, but maybe not a lot of jobs available.

And, you know, we've all watched enough science-fiction movies to know that there are two flavors of movie about the future. There's kind of the utopian version and the dystopian version. And we're going to have a choice about which of those two scenarios we head toward as we move deeper into this era of astonishing technical progress.

CONAN: David Brancaccio, it's almost impossible to imagine that we would all grow fatter and fatter slurping up our drinks on space stations while WALL-E continues to do our jobs.

BRANCACCIO: Exactly. By the way, science fiction offers a solution here. I think it was Isaac Asimov, his idea was that - at least the character in one of the books - was that labor unions set aside certain jobs for just humans and exclude robots from certain positions in society. So there is one solution drawn from the pages of science fiction.

CONAN: Here's an email from Justin(ph) in Detroit: I recently saw a video of a robot conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What other creativity-driven professions are being investigated in robotics? Any idea, Andrew McAfee?

MCAFEE: Yeah, we haven't seen what I would call a lot of digital creativity yet, but we absolutely are seeing the automation of some of the more routine, shorter kinds of a creative work. We mentioned writing earlier. I was talking to a guy that runs a company called Automated Insights, which automates sports writing, which is kind of formulaic, is pretty fact-based.

So he sets up websites that are populated with stories about college basketball, and he says every year the website will get an email from an athletic director of the college that's being covered to say: Hey, do you want a couple tickets to the upcoming tournament? And he has to kind of politely explain the laptop is not going to show up and want to go to your college tournament.

CONAN: The laptop's not going to come up with: The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail. So...

MCAFEE: Right.

CONAN: any case, this email from Jerry(ph) in San Francisco: I don't know how many NPR member stations use this, but mine, KQED-FM, has a computer running the overnight broadcast. The afternoon announcer records the time checks and announcements ahead of time, then the machine inserts them between recorded programs through the wee hours.

David Brancaccio, we can't begin to tell you how much of the broadcast industry is thus operated.

BRANCACCIO: I know. And I needed something to listen to as I was driving across the country, all those six days alone. And so what I did was I downloaded some Pandora, and that's that online service where you put in your favorite band or your favorite song, and it uses an algorithm to choose - to do the DJ work. And it worked pretty well. When I put in the musician Beck, the set was really good. It was a very clever selection of songs. When I put in Neil Young, it was bizarre. It didn't work. So the robots' efforts are a bit uneven at this stage.

CONAN: Let's go next to George(ph), George with us from Ann Arbor.

GEORGE: Yes. My encounter with one particular - with a robot - well, I didn't know it was a robot. It was calling my house for months, and it would call up and it would ask for the lady of the house. And I would say, no, and it would hang up. And then it would call back, and I was never thinking ahead. It always got me off-guard. So for months and months this went on.

And then, finally I said - you know, I would say, who's - you know, can I help you? Because it kept hanging up. It would just say, are you the lady of the house? I'd say no, and I'd hang up. I thought it was just really rude. And then, finally, I said, yes. And then it went on to tell me - ask me about - did I want to buy some family videos? But I thought it was a person the whole time talking to me, and I tried to engage him in a conversation.

And finally, I asked - I said, do you - are you a person or a machine? And the machine said, ha-ha-ha. Of course I'm a person. I'm not a machine. So I asked the exact same question again, and the machine replied, ha-ha-ha. Of course I'm a real person. I'm not a machine. Then I knew I was dealing with a machine.

And finally, by pushing different buttons and basically tricking the machine, I finally got to a real person. I said, please, stop calling me. But for months, I thought a real person was calling me. For the first 30 seconds, I thought I was talking to a real person.

CONAN: One thing about robot devices like that is they are tireless, as you suggest, George. And maybe the most annoying prompt is please continue to hold for our automated phone answering system.


CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for the phone call.

GEORGE: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about David Brancaccio's series for American Public Media's "Marketplace," "Robots Ate My Job." He's with us, along with Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email from Andy(ph) in Oakland: This is a very interesting conversation. I'd like to know where the line is between a robot and a machine. The latest example of the Da Vinci surgical device is an example. I would say it's no different from the keyboard I'm using - not so much a computer, more of a machine. Insomuch as computers are cheaper, history shows there's nothing cheaper than human. People will work themselves to death for less than food needed to keep them alive. It's more than a question of working for a decent standard of living - having robots do the greatest good for the society.

So Andrew McAfee, is there a meaningful line between a robot and a machine?

MCAFEE: Less meaningful all the time. So the boundaries between computer and robot and machine and tool are getting super fuzzy. My car doesn't drive itself, but it's got a GPS system in it. I don't know how much micro - how much processing power it has in it, and it's going to become more robot-like and more computer-like while remaining a car for years to come.

CONAN: Here's another email, this from Netto(ph) in Minnesota: My daughter, age 5, has cerebral palsy, is currently receiving physical therapy with a robotic device. She gets strapped into a device with robotic legs that move along with her legs, and the machine can be programmed to provide the appropriate amount of support. This helps her move with the proper gait. We've seen improvements with her walking speed and smoothness. There's even a biofeedback option where the computer screen shows a smiley face that smiles larger when she puts out more effort. The device is called a Lokomat or RobALT. My daughter receives this therapy at Gillette Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.

And David Brancaccio, so many of these robotic applications are in medicine.

BRANCACCIO: They certainly are, and you know, what is a robot and what isn't? Young parents today seem to whip out the iPad, which then reads the storybook to their offspring. And it's sort of a robot parent situation. It's - everywhere that you look, this technology is starting to encroach. Andy, you mentioned this metaphor to me that really stuck with me. I think it's originally from the philosopher and musician Ray Kurzweil. It's the idea of the chessboard to illustrate just how quickly innovation is moving. Do you think you can share with us that metaphor for us?

MCAFEE: Yeah. Ray makes this great distinction between the first half of the chessboard and the second half of the chessboard. And it comes from an old story about when you put one grain of rice on the first square and double it, put two on the second, double it again, put four, what happens over the 64 squares of the chessboard? And by the end, you've got a pile of rice the size of Mount Everest. So it just staggers the imagination.

Kurzweil's point is that in the first 32 squares total, you've got about four billion grains of rice. Now, that's a lot, but it's only about as much as you'd get from one large field, and it doesn't stagger the imagination. You know, we can kind of - we can think about a billion, especially in the wake of the debt crisis. That's a number that kind of makes sense to us. It's in the second half of the chessboard that that constant doubling yields numbers so big that our intuition falls apart, that prior experience falls apart.

So when we were writing our book, we did just a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. The U.S. started tracking computers as an investment category in 1958, and the standard period for doubling of computer power is 18 months. You do a little bit of math, and that quick estimate tells you that we entered the second half of the chessboard in about 2006 with computers, which helps me understand why we've got Google cars and Siri and Watson and all these robots coming at us just in the past few years. If this analogy holds up at all, the only real conclusion is we ain't seen nothing yet.

CONAN: We talked about some advanced medical devices. This email from Teresa: My daughter works at a brand new hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they have a robot that can deliver food and meds and do other tasks. It can sense when something is standing in its way and will say excuse me and go around. I guess not too dissimilar from the cars and other devices like that. Gentlemen, thanks very much for your time today. And David, I assume that your golden-throated tones will sometimes show up in applications we'll never understand.

BRANCACCIO: No, exactly. I mean maybe we'll live on, both you and I, in this way.

CONAN: David Brancaccio, special correspondent for American Public Media's "Marketplace," joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Andrew McAfee of MIT's Center for Digital Business, author, co-author of "Race Against the Machine," thanks very much for your time today.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.