Friday, January 9, 2009

The Real Robot Revenge: Part 1

Machines have been edging people out of the workplace since… machines existed …and there was a workplace. The Industrial Revolution just took it to the extreme. Specialization. Ford assembly lines with conveyor belts. Machines are just better at making machines. But are the service industries in danger, too?

Busy people want convenient technological tools and toys. Raise your hand if you’ve ever walked into a Starbucks and thought some dude was talking to you, only to come to the shameful realization that he was wearing a Bluetooth headset and was on a long-distance conference call with the Japanese CEO of whatever, inc. Yesterday’s phones allowed you to skip all that nasty face-to-face, eye-to-eye human contact. Today’s cell phones let you do it on the go. Better yet, send a text message. Now you don’t even have to listen to that disgusting human voice.

Just look at this guy. The new business professional is a sleek cyborg. I don't use words like "douche" in civilized blog posts.

I dream of the day that I can wake up, live a full day, and return home without seeing another person.

Tinted windows. Noise-canceling headphones. Online shopping. Every day my dream gets closer and closer. It’s obvious that other people share the dream, because the marketplace is responding. Whether you realize it or not, you’re a victim of the very real robot revenge.

Smart Tags. EZ pass. Alright, paying tolls stinks. But now you don’t even get to hand your money to that cheerful, hardworking whoever and compliment her on her matching neon-yellow reflective vest and jumpsuit. Just stick this little electronic transmitter thingy on your windshield and every time you pass through the fast lane to get on or off the toll road your account number is beamed up to the mother ship where you are charged accordingly. The machines track your progress. The Matrix has you.


The self-checkout. I thought ATMs were just the next logical step from Cola vending machines. Combine the two and you get a machine that can take your money, run a transaction, and ask you if you want cash back. “No, thanks. I’m on a tight budget.” No reply. You can walk in, purchase, and walk out without even stepping into earshot of another person, if you’re lucky. Forget about service with a smile...shiny buttons! Sometimes I don’t place my items in the bagging area at the self-checkout just so I can hear that sweet, ladylike machine voice admit that it needs human assistance. “Whew…thought I was all alone in here.” After the nuclear Holocaust the only things left will be Hondas and cockroaches. But if a Safeway supermarket survives the boom, I’ll still be able to buy my groceries. Those touch screens are nifty!

Calling the movie theatre the other day brought my attention to another front on the battlefield of Man vs. Machine. After literally five or six sub-directories and menus, which I navigated through using my keypad (machines speak in numbers), some recording told me some show times and then hung up on me. For serious? All I wanted was someone to talk to. Someone to hold me and tell me everything is going to be alright.

When I called FedEx to figure out where I needed to go to ship a last-minute package towards the end of the business day, the machine lady actually asked me for the name of a town or city and it’s corresponding zip code. Then she asked me to answer a couple of simple “Yes” or “No” questions. Oh, great. Voice recognition is now allowing the machines to imitate our good manners and conversational charm. Now they’re here to stay.