Human Beings not Required

As the song originally gave us about flowers—where have all the people gone?

I used to enjoy chatting with Chris—the guy at the local bank—whenever I wandered in to cash a cheque. However, now he’s gone and been replaced by a squat grey machine with a screen that apparently does the same job. It may read a cheque (not very well) but the machine has absolutely no sense of humour and doesn’t respond whenever I tease it about Chelsea FC losing again. Chris also used to dispense so-called racing tips to me, so I suppose I’ve saved myself some cash because his tips invariably lost. I gather that not only Chris but now the whole branch of the bank will be moving in a few months as part of a ‘central cost-saving exercise’. This means that in future I will have to drive an extra 25 miles whenever I want to cash my measly little cheque for five quid—money that will be lost in my extra mileage and fuel costs.

And what about the ‘staff savings and job cuts’ at the supermarket when I am confronted by a self-checkout machine?  Obviously, it means less people are employed because the machines are doing their jobs, but I miss not being able to have a real human being to talk to. I like the little friendly questions and answers at the check-out such as “…it’s raining—it looks like a busy day for you” or “…only just clocked on”. Yes, I know these are meaningless little snippets of polite conversation, but at least I know I am dealing with real people. If you tried to converse like that with a machine, all you’d get would be “Please place your items on the weighing scale” which doesn’t do much to encourage social banter. Yes, I know I could go through a manned service point and put all my stuff on the moving belt, but have you seen the queues? The reason there are less customers in the self-checkout stations is that we don’t like using them and we’d prefer dealing with a real person. Machines are OK for a few small items—toothpaste, milk, newspaper etc—but have you seriously tried to do a major week’s shop with loads of bottles and washing up liquid and bread and fruit and stuff? Unless it’s just me and I’m being cack-handed, my machine can’t read the bar code or it’s wrongly read the same item twice (so annoying) and the entry needs to be cancelled. You then have to wait for a human assistant which rather defeats the whole aim of staff saving. And then—worst of all—comes the all too loud “Unexpected item in the bagging area”. I try to hide. I feel I’m a criminal and need to be arrested! It’s so embarrassing and it’s totally the machine’s fault. I often swear at it in return but the resulting conversation is entirely one-sided. And which bit is the bagging area anyway? And why is my bag of leeks so unexpected?

Another thing about the voice on self-service machines… she sounds exactly like my dentist, so for me, it’s quite unnerving. Perhaps she really is my dentist. It’s neutral but there’s a hint of steel about it, as in “…now this won’t take long, but I’m afraid it’s going to hurt a bit.”

Why can’t she be more human, more individual and less “supersmarm”? Personally, I’d prefer comments like “Please insert your store card” to sound deep and romantic like a sort of sexy Fenella Fielding. You should be able to choose your type of voice before you start. Customers could select from James Mason, Sharon Stone or Morgan Freeman to offer advice on the bagging area situation.

This is all a part of an ever-increasing trend: to save money by cutting out people and replacing them with machines. By far the most worrying example of this trend is driverless cars. According to the Government, self-driving cars will be on our roads by 2021. But why? Nobody asked me. And nobody’s asked you or anyone else either. It’s apparently just going to happen. The Government says: ‘We’ve already got driverless vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, so why not cars?’ But they’re missing the point. Unlike hoovering the sitting room or mowing the lawn which are considered chores, I actually enjoy driving. And so do millions of other people. In the USA they’ve tried it out and they’ve discovered that while machines are predictable, humans are unpredictable and behave illogically. No machine will be able to anticipate that the silly driver in front is going to suddenly pull out and turn right without rhyme or reason. It takes another human being driver to always prepare for the unexpected and take avoiding action. 73% of Americans in a recent survey said they would be too fearful to ride in a fully automated vehicle. They’re right to be scared…

Welcome to ‘Humphrey’s Law of Forward Invention’ which states that technology will always advance at its own reckless pace unless stopped by human beings. The reason that we’re going to have driverless cars is because technology says it’s possible—not because we want it or even need it. After driverless cars, what next? I’ll tell you. It’ll be driverless airplanes. Oh, really? Apparently, that’s already happening…

Perhaps we’ll be able to remove the driverless plane crash from the airport bagging area before it’s too late, but I rather doubt it.