The mystery in the rise of technologies that no one asked for
Since no one is very much interested in my travel articles about Finland, I will go back to ranting about AI and automation — which interests even less people, but that’s fine. I get paid by the word…
I’ve noticed that self-checkout is taking over more and more shops and supermarkets. They have existed for a while, of course, but more as an alternative to reduce lines.
In Germany, they were not very common until recently, but suddenly they started appearing in most supermarkets. In Finland, they are a regular fixture of most stores and probably have been for a while.
Yet, self-checkout appears not to be very effective or convenient, neither for shops nor for customers. Many customers tend to dislike self-checkout, as evidenced by the fact that there are always lines for human cashiers but none for self-checkouts. They give you the perception of more speed, but it is just illusory. Professional human cashiers scan and move your products faster (specially in Germany, where they go so quickly, basically throwing the stuff at your face, that you can hardly keep up).
“Nobody likes self-checkout“, says an article at CNN, “Here’s why it’s everywhere”.
Basically, as it is typical in the “digital economy”, it is just another way of passing the work to the customer and making think he’s gaining something with the exchange. Now, it may work for some — and I guess it is good if you want to avoid human interactions with a cranky cashier, which sometimes has its benefits.
You’d think that this type of automation would reduce the work of human cashiers and therefore save money for the companies and therefore make products cheaper, but it is not so. First of all, the machines need constant maintenance. Even if companies reduce the number of cashiers, they need to hire more technicians, which are paid more. The machines cost a lot, too, and require programming. And are supermarket products becoming cheaper? I don’t think so, quite the opposite in fact…
But not even the reduction in the number of human cashiers is a given. When people have to do their own checkout with machines, there is always something that goes wrong, or some product that won’t be scanned, so many people constantly require assistance even when using the self-checkout. In the end, cashiers and supervisors actually end up having more work, instead of less.
Of course, self-checkout is more conducive to shoplifting — sometimes voluntary, sometimes accidental. There are items, such as bread, that have no barcodes, and it becomes more complicated to register them in. Even if most people are honest, some are not. Companies lose more money with that, too — according to that same CNN article, losses are about 77% higher than at stores without self-checkout.
Since it doesn’t save money for companies, nor makes the products cheaper or the experience better for customers, one has to wonder why most companies are moving to self-checkout anyway? CNN‘s and The Guardian‘s answer is that “most companies are doing it, so they feel that they have to do it too”, which seems a stupid explanation.
The same is true of customer service — most people dislike bots as costumer service agents and prefer talking to a person. Yet bots keep being used, more and more. I suppose they are cheaper than paying a person to answer the phone, but my suspicion is that it’s about something else entirely. And in fact an article gives it way when it says that bots can easily record, memorize and access all your information, in order to provide for a “better customer journey” (the new marketing buzzword is “journey” instead of “experience”).
Obviously, there is something else behind the hype. Like with everything related to AI, there is a huge push by Big Tech for making everything automated and AI-dependant, from cars to journalistic essays to art works. And the reason is “big data”. Getting all the information they can about you.
In “1984”, George Orwell predicted screens observing us 24/7. But now we have not just screens, but cameras, satellites, location tracking apps, facial identification apps, voice recording apps, AI. They will know what you eat, what you poop, how much money you make, how much you spend, what hereditary diseases you have, and what you did last summer.
In the end, what “Artificial Intelligence” is really about, is not “intelligence” in the sense of “being clever”, but “intelligence” in the meaning understood by the CIA — gathering “intelligence”. Recording, remembering and accessing all kinds of information from everybody.
Soon, all objects are going to be spying on you.
And it will not be just governments and big corporations. A recent story about a mother who received a message about her daughter’s (fake) kidnapping using the daughter’s cloned voice, as well as the emergency of very believable “deep fake” videos, show the huge boost for scamming and crime provided by these new technologies. If you thought spam mails and spam calls were a nightmare, get ready for the new AI-powered identity thefts and scams.
Unfazed by the relative failure of self-checkout, Big Tech is pushing for even more of it. Amazon, who owns Whole Foods and other physical stores, has introduced “smart carts”, where your products are scanned and weighed as soon as you put them in the cart, no checkout needed (your debit card or phone is charged automatically).
Other new versions of self-checkout include shops where each movement is tracked by AI cameras and motion sensors, registering each item you take from the shelf and billing you later. All you need to do is swipe a credit card or smartphone, at least until the new methods that allow you to pay by facial recognition are installed.