To automate, or not to automate? Is there value to the human element?

A Glimpse of the Future 

Last week I took a first look at some of the jobs that have been increasingly moving over to automation, and a few that might see more automation and fewer humans doing the work in the future.

In some cases this might not be a bad thing. In other cases, the robots may not do as good a job as humans might. A couple of cases-in-point leap to mind: bank tellers and retail store checkers. Which do you prefer?

Love ’em or hate ’em (I know people who feel both ways), these machines seem here to stay.

I’m older than dirt, so I remember before they had such contraptions. I remember having to plan to get money before the bank closed for the day or weekend, and how you always talked with a human being before you could complete any transaction.

I kind of liked it (confession: I still don’t own an ATM card, out of security concerns. Planning ahead: it’s a thing.), but then, I live in the Midwest, where bank tellers and grocery store checkers are apparently friendlier than they are in some other parts of the world. I like to get to know them, in the fond hope that if someone they didn’t know came in and tried to wipe out my bank account, they’d question it. I feel quite certain my bankers at Kansas City’s Country Club Bank would. Thanks, guys!!

I also remember before there was a self-checkout line at the grocery store. I even remember before they had bar codes on the groceries (what a pain that was!), and you had to watch the checker to make sure s/he didn’t make an error or ring something twice that you only bought one of. Of course, now when the machine steals your ATM or credit card information, you have few ways of knowing, so is that a net gain? Depends on for whom, I guess.

There’s reportedly now a trend toward automating fast-food service, unfortunately driven in part by the industry’s resistance to paying its employees a living wage. I can see how an automatic timer to pull the fries out of the hot oil at the penultimate moment might be a good thing, but completely removing all or most of the people? That’s a farther stretch for me.

You see, we’ve actually had automated fast-food delivery for a long time. They’re called vending machines, and they aren’t actually noted for their-high quality products or their ambiance.

Granted, Mickey D’s isn’t long on “ambience” either, but I kind of like to chit-chat with the smiling teens or senior citizens at the counter. Call me weird, but I prefer dealing with people, over figuring out the interface on yet another dang gadget. I’ve kinda perfected the human interface, at least to some extent, and I have this weird notion that people should be respected, even when they have low-end jobs.

An automated fast-food “restaurant” looks an awful lot like a glorified vending machine to me.

As I see it, the whole key should be playing to strengths. Robots and automation do some things way better than people. Business Insider interviewed Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington School of Law with expertise in robotics, who said, “For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks.” All of the applications we’ve looked at so far in both this and the previous post on this topic have been in that category.

Calo thinks, however, that robots are now, or soon will be, capable of moving beyond “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” It’s a fine line to define (sorry for the rhyme), so where do we draw it? If robots and automation can lift us beyond those “dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks,” isn’t that a net gain? I think it definitely is. If they can ever design a Roomba that cleans the potty, I’m all in!

Ivan Fourie encountered this friendly store clerk in Kyoto 2006, and immortalized her in a photo.

But people right now (and for millennia) do/have done way better at some things than robots and automation have managed so far. The determination to push automation/artificial intelligence beyond those basic limits won’t stop. (we’re talking about humans with an intellectual challenge. Of course they’ll pursue it as far as they can).

But just as industry doesn’t want to talk about the full cost of their initiatives (including environmental and human damage), so the people involved in the “second machine age” don’t want to talk about ALL the costs of their initiatives.

Are these Chinese robots cute enough to be worth their cost in human devaluation? Are they worth the effort of putting “friendly store clerk” and her siblings all over the world into financial devastation?

Would their AIs put good people out of work that they need? Don’t we all need people who are a positive part of their community? The friendly 7-Eleven clerk who brightens our morning? The bank teller who keeps our accounts safe? The shopkeeper who grows her small business locally? The first-generation immigrant family who runs the gas station? The custodian who keeps the school clean and well-maintained?

What’s the human cost of the fancy machines? Do they make life better for the humans in the community, or only for the corporations running the businesses?

I think we’re at a crossroads, in our contemporary life. We can look globally at ALL the costs of the decisions we take, or we can keep on looking only at money in a system skewed to ignore some of the most important costs of all.

Our choice.

Our future.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the future-vision graphic. The photo of the Safeway self-checkout is courtesy of WonderHowTo, and the photo of the ATM machine is from The Northeast Today; many thanks to both of you! The cynical minimum wage meme is from Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report.” Your thanks is that I acknowledged where it came from, dude. You certainly illustrated my point, anyway. Many thanks to NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for the photo of the automated fast-food restaurant. I am grateful to Ivan Fourie’s Flickr Photostream for the the friendly store clerk’s photo. Many thanks to Business Insider for the photo of the Chinese food service robots.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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