Rumination 61: Automation Visualised

Boxes of eyes in an ordered process, connected by lines

Something that we hear about frequently these days is how we need to prepare for the future of work. With the growing use of automation, artificial intelligence and online services, many different jobs that are currently performed by humans will continue to be taken over by efficient machines.

People will apparently have to focus on developing soft skills and creativity—the very things that make them human and superior to a machine. That is, at least until machines are so advanced that they can replicate or outperform humans in creative endeavours. Really, nothing is safe.

We’re already in the midst of this seismic societal shift and for those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s generally referred to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’ (I cringe at the second moniker).

As far as I’m concerned, although many of the technologies that are replacing (and will continue to replace) humans are new, the trend of replacing humans in general is not. There’s a reason that it’s referred to as the fourth revolution: this has all happened before. Humanity survived the earlier march of mechanisation.

Still, while I try to retain some optimism for the future and remember that history does tend to repeat itself, it does feel strange and somewhat unsettling to see tangible examples of this societal shift in person. This isn’t just a future thing; it’s happening now.

One instance of such human replacement presented itself when my wife and I went to see a movie on the weekend. Upon entering the cinema with our tickets in Apple Wallet, already booked online, we expected to go to a counter to have a human scan our barcodes and let us through the foyer. This was not the case; we were confronted by a normal counter, which one would expect to see manned, but instead had automatic scanners and printers ready to receive us in front of where a person would normally be standing.

To be clear, we are accustomed to seeing automatic checkouts at supermarkets; the difference there is that it is a new kind of space in the supermarket, with a series of computers and scanners arranged appropriately with a human stationed nearby to provide assistance. In the case of the cinema ticket counter, machines had been installed into the very place where a human being would traditionally stand. This was not the creation of a new interface or service context; it was the presentation of pure human replacement, an awkward transition into what the company clearly envisages to be the future.

All in all, the movie was most enjoyable and we had a great evening. That being said, there was something strange and lacking about going into a cinema, which is fundamentally a public place, and not having to deal with a person in receiving a ticket. There was no one there to rip a ticket, scan a digital equivalent or simply say, ‘Enjoy the movie’.

Yes, this is one small example of automation out of many possible situations, however it is a noticeable change that can affect how you understand and move through such a space. It alters the experience. Cinemas should be competing with automated alternatives in the home like Netflix by providing a human-service experience, not falling into the trap of dehumanising their service offerings and ultimately losing their point of differentiation.

We should ask ourselves: in the quest for incredible efficiency over ‘slow’ human interaction, what are we losing in the long run?

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