Where Did Everyone Go?

I think it started with Automated Teller Machines (ATM). TD Bank introduced us to the Green Machine and we fell in love. No longer did we have to wait in line to deposit our pay-cheques or withdraw money. Convenience was king. Soon all the other banks followed suit.

Then came the self-checkouts, also known as SACAT machines (semi-attended customer-activated terminals). They started popping up everywhere – Walmart, Home Depot, even our local libraries. They said it was for convenience. A lot of people hate the ones in the stores because they replace people’s jobs. I get it – we all need to save money and keep the cost of goods low, right? Besides they’re just minimum wage unimportant jobs, right?


Then McDonald’s, which is almost the last bastion of part-time jobs for students, put in self-service kiosks. No longer can we complain about order takers not being able to do the math and give us the right change, or forgetting to mention we don’t want pickles on our big Mac sandwich. Technology rules supreme and our orders are now perfect and everybody’s happy, right?

Have we been lulled into complacency? Into accepting a fairy tale ending to automation?

Let’s examine the dark side.

With every new technology comes an opportunity for less than honourable people to find a way to try new scams.

ATMs? We’ve all heard about the skimmers on a lot of the machines, just waiting for us to use them so they can steal our bank card information and ultimately our money.

Self-checkouts? Store thefts (aka shoplifting) have increased over 4% because of self-checkouts. According to Business Insider, it’s actually encouraging honest people to steal, sometimes intentionally (not scanning all items) or unintentionally (buying organic produce but entering the code for the non-organic one). They’re harder thefts to prosecute as well because it’s difficult to prove intent and customers can plead ignorance or blame it on an equipment malfunction. And, as fate would have it, thieves have found a way to put skimmers on the debit machines.

Here’s a funny story about the founder of self-checkouts, Howard Schneider, actually trying to buy some peppers using a self-checkout at Wal-Mart: http://www.npr.org/2016/10/20/498736760/self-checkout-could-soon-be-checking-out

It’s hard for me to argue against the self-service kiosks at McDonald’s for a few reasons. First, it actually gets the order right. Second, because I’m forced to pay with my debit/credit card, I no longer have to worry about incorrect change or the pickles on my big Mac sandwich. Finally, it’s all irrelevant to me because I never go to McDonald’s. Not my circus, not my monkey, but gosh! what about those high school students and their part-time jobs?

Even libraries have embraced self-checkouts, but in their situation, it really is about improving the customer experience and not about reducing staff or saving money – because they don’t really save money. To prevent the library’s collection materials from “walking” out the door, they use RFID (radio frequency identification). Now libraries are discussing opening staff-less branches, primarily to extend the number of hours they can afford to be open to the public. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/03/20/pilot-project-to-eliminate-toronto-library-staff-part-time.html

Where will all this automation take us?

Many of us are doing most, if not all, of our banking online. Our pay-cheques are deposited automatically to our accounts, our bills are either set up to automatically be paid, or we go online and pay them. We move money around our accounts and send money wirelessly to our children for their allowances. We use online shopping sites and have our products delivered to our door, all paid for online. Yes, there are thieves hiding around every URL it seems, but we protect ourselves with complicated passwords, two-factor authentication, fingerprint identification, and bio-metric facial recognition. I only go into the bank to discuss or renew my mortgage, exchange currencies, or get a very rare bank draft when needed.

Now, Alterna Bank has announced that, as part of the digital banking revolution, they have launched Canada’s first and only end-to-end digital mortgage. It’s supposed to make it easier for us when seeking financing to purchase a new home. This new portal walks home buyers through pre-approval, decisioning, funding, even remote income verification. Supposedly it goes beyond basic credit scores and uses multiple data sources and advanced business intelligence to match up the right mortgage for each client. They’re calling it the “touch-less” experience for their consumers.

What’s missing from all of this is the human touch. The one-on-one, face-to-face experience. But is it even wanted? I want it. When supermarkets started switching to bag your own, I sought out stores that still bagged. I’m a busy person and though it sound trivial, I’m not an expert at bagging. I will gladly pay more for someone who knows how to optimize bag space and has the experience to understand what weight a bag can carry, or even how many bags I will need. It takes me 3 times as long to bag up a week’s groceries, and the entire time I feel guilty because I’m holding up other customers because my stuff is still on the belt. Let someone with experience do it please so I can be in and out as quickly as possible, so I get back to doing what I’m good at. Which is not bagging groceries; like these self-checkouts expect me to do.

Okay, that was a bit of a rant, but I feel much better now!

I don’t want a society where I don’t talk to anyone, where I don’t see anyone.  We all want and need that human interaction.  There seems to be a presumption that the answer to slow or poor customer service is to provide no customer service – automate everything. Is anyone researching the societal effects of an automated world? Not just the lack of part-time jobs for students (and often full-time workers) but also the psychological effects of not having the face-to-face interaction with another human being, which Psychology Today says reduces the risk of depression.

It’s predicted that by 2020 we’ll even have driverless cars, so our next Uber may not even have someone sitting behind the wheel.  Elon Musk, founder of the electric car (which I so badly want) and SpaceX has his own concerns about the future of AI.

I’ve embraced technology all of my life, but I think sometimes we need to stop for a bit and figure out the consequences of what we’re doing and where we’re going. Before we find ourselves in a place we never wanted to be.

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