You wouldn’t think that someone who has traveled around the world, talking to people, gathering stories, would volunteer to drive his first car trip across the United States, determined to not say a word.
Or handle money. Or engage in any live interactions with humans.
Yet David Brancaccio’s six-day journey was just that. For Maplewood, New Jersey resident Brancaccio, a Special Correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, no talking and no commerce were precisely the trip’s purpose.
And it wasn’t so easy.
Brancaccio, 53, drove from Sandy Hook, NJ to San Francisco, CA, to demonstrate how robots are slowly but surely consuming American jobs. “Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people have fretted about machines replacing humans in the workforce. While some of that has proven true over the decades, human beings have been needed,” said Brancaccio.
After reading a book about how today’s technology is developing faster than ever before, effectively replacing people with machines in the workplace like computers and robots, Brancaccio, ever hunting for a story, sensed a good one. The project, “Robots Ate My Job” evolved, and he decided to take it on the road.
He planned every detail of the 3,200-mile trip that began March 25th. With access to self-pumping gas stations, (except New Jersey, where he filled up the night before he left), self-checkout grocery stores, self-service hotel check-in kiosks, E-Z Pass, an ultraelaborate GPS, and even a robot dog traveling companion he named Wilson, (invoking the soccer ball Tom Hanks anthropomorphized in the 2000 movie Castaway), Brancaccio managed to avoid nearly all in person human contact – except for a couple incidents he couldn’t prevent and some unanticipated challenges.
First, his car, which Brancaccio calls the ultimate “man-cave, ” presented a problem. Borrowing a fully loaded Audi A7 from Automobile Magazine, Brancaccio realized the car attracted people like a magnet. Who wouldn’t be curious about a car with an $8,000 sound system and a flat-screen television, showing every map coordinate, matching speed with traffic conditions, and more? Brancaccio tactfully avoided eye contact and talking, though he’s sure he heard some derogatory grumbles muttered under onlookers’ breaths at his less than welcoming response to queries.
Then the dog. Seeing the dog waddle along the Boardwalk in Sandy Hook, children became curious. Cute, friendly children. And Brancaccio, feeling awful about being rude, had to turn away.
Beginning in Sandy Hook, Brancaccio filled an old water bottle with sand and splashed himself with Atlantic Ocean water, hoping to repeat the experience when he arrived on the West Coast. Reaching his first destination in Roanoke, Virginia, he soon realized he’d have to sacrifice something else along with no talking – no sightseeing. “I couldn’t buy tickets to places that interested me because that would have meant I talked to someone and exchanged money.”
The vow of silence also meant he couldn’t enjoy the local foods as he traveled state to state. “Imagine, I’m in Memphis. I could smell the BBQ and couldn’t buy it,” he said, remembering how he ate cold leftover pizza. He also couldn’t buy beer, as that would require showing his ID and interacting with people. Liquor isn’t yet sold at self-checkout counters.
Brancaccio’s day began early in the morning, jogging the virtual running course in the hotel’s exercise room, ears plugged into his iPod. He wrote stories and drank a quick cup of hotel room coffee, checking out around 10 am. He drove, on average, 12-14 hours a day, then checked into his hotel and cooked his frozen dinner in a portable microwave he carried, and went to sleep late at night after he filed his story, via computer and without live conversation. He unplugged his cell phone, and communicated with his wife Mary and their three children only by email.
He broke the monotony of long distance highway driving by listening to a book on tape, Isaac Asimov’s 1957 The Naked Sun, an appropriate title for the journey. The science fiction mystery pairs Earthman Detective Elijah Baley with R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw to solve a murder on one of the Outer Worlds, a robot-dependent planet. “The book foretold how our interactions would be conducted through real media,” said Brancaccio. He also listened to Pandora Internet Radio.
Surrounded by technology, he wasn’t really alone. This wasn’t a backpacking trip in the woods. “In many ways, I was ready for this trip. We all are. We practice it everyday. I know I spend too much of my day texting and answering emails. On NJ Transit, I don’t talk to people, even if I know them. I have on my headphones and I’m working,” he said.
He had two unavoidable exchanges with people. His first time, at the self-checkout for groceries, an ear of corn wouldn’t scan, forcing him to ask for assistance. Then, while checking himself into a hotel outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the night manager recognized him from his television show, NOW, that ran on PBS from 2003 to 2010. Brancaccio couldn’t ignore him.
After dipping his feet in the Pacific Ocean, gathering someWest Coast sand, and downing a celebratory beer (provided by a friend who met him at the beach), Brancaccio returned the car, and flew home.
Are robots eating our jobs? “Yes and no,” said Brancaccio. Certainly his experiment shows that computers can replace many chores often done by people. Lower wage jobs, like cleaning, lawn care, and car washing, are performed more economically by humans. Jobs in the middle sector that require college educations, like laboratory technicians and health care aides, can be relegated to robots, which can accomplish regimented tasks.
Brancaccio hopes to repeat the cross-country trip, but wants to return to what he loves best: talking to people, hearing their stories and sharing these tales with others. He’d like to drive a no-frills van, camp, interact with as many people as possible, take in the sights and eat food. Something no robot could ever do.
See more about his journey here: http://www.marketplace.org/robots-ate-my-job
Have you had any experiences where robots have taken the place of humans?
(I wrote this article for JerseyMan magazine. )