First off, I’m not sure that “non-personal” is even a word or phrase…I’ve been searching for the right description for our more frequent interactions with bots or AI…impersonal doesn’t work as you can have an impersonal relationship with a human at a call center or help desk. What I’m looking for is how do describe our ongoing acceptance or even desire to avoid humans and interact with machines.
You may have seen the brouhaha (first time using that great word- French but the etymology is conflicting) around the recent announcement of the Silicon Valley start-up “Bodega.” Seriously, the Valley will pour billions into any start-up idea birthed by their own. This idea is essentially a vending machine that carries a sampling of products that are currently sold by neighborhood bodegas in urban areas. The announcement (or pronouncement) that this is the future of small-scale retailing caused quite a commotion. Detractors were quick to point out how these vending machines were designed to put small businesses out of business, were targeting a sector that is primarily family-run, immigrant-based and an asset to neighborhoods that would not ordinarily be served by large supermarket chains. All these arguments are quite valid, but the truth is this concept, Bodega, is only controversial because of the cultural appropriation of the name and mission. Had the founders stuck to a more generic name and put forth the mission to offer 24/7 convenience I don’t think this would have been met with vitriol. It would be yet another offering with a bit of technology – in this case facial recognition software – designed to make our lives easier by eliminating the need for any human interaction whatsoever.
So, what does this “one off” incident have to do with our future? Let me posit a somewhat dystopian scenario in the vein of BladeRunner and Soylent Green, even Robocop…Let’s suppose this trend of robotics and non-human, non-personal interactions continue at the level we are currently experiencing. Farms produce foodstuffs using autonomous equipment – from planting to harvesting to processing. Most manufactured goods are delivered the same way. Autonomous trucks deliver the products to autonomous distribution centers and retail outlets. Delivery to the end user by drone or yet more autonomous vehicles. So, less jobs for “real” people. Way less jobs and way more people, putting a strain on the ability to purchase what the machines can manufacture. Craftspeople, those who design and create one-of-a-kind products may prosper as might the entertainment industry – provided that it doesn’t become wholly digitized and created by AI…All these possibilities point to a world of very limited human interaction. Store owners, cashiers, sales people, stock boys and girls, wait staff will all be superfluous down the road. Much of this will be due to technology like Bodega but a lot of the responsibility falls on us. Convenience is certainly a factor but so is our indifference to human interaction. We simply don’t care whether we are served by a machine or a human; whether we are talking or texting to a chatbot; whether the ads we see were placed by a person or programmed by a machine based on our searches.
Non-personal interactions are here and now and will only increase down the road…and I haven’t even mentioned sex robots…