Time to take the automation debate beyond jobs? I think so

While many functions in society have been automated for a very long time, with traffic lights being the most recognisable form to most of us, the combination of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies have created much more sophisticated versions of automation. These have given us things like self-service kiosks and driver-less cars. While these are all exciting, self-service and smart automation could potentially fundamentally re-arrange our social order, in ways we haven’t quite anticipated.


The founders of Bodega Ashwath Rajan and Paul McDonald. Photo: Bodega

Think of Amazon’s plans to launch a cashier-less, ‘just walk out’ grocery shop, Amazon Go. Or the two former Google employees who launched ‘Bodega’, a start-up offering what are basically gentrified vending machines, to replace corner stores. I for one was glad to see the start-up mocked on Twitter, because it was my first time seeing debates about new forms of automation go beyond their potential impact on jobs.

Unlike when the Observatory, Cape Town branch of Pick n Pay- the country’s second biggest supermarket- started a trial with self-service till points. The move earned much ire from trade unions, with South Africa’s largest trade union federation calling for a boycott of the store.

A study in the UK and ongoing debate in the US suggests that self-service and smart automation will cost jobs, particularly for low-wage workers. The other more optimistic view being that while automation will lead to job losses, new ones will be created. But this view fails to clearly define what kind of workers these jobs will cater for. And with South Africa’s unemployment crisis, it’s no surprise that this is what the concern is.

But the question of self-service and smart automation affects us beyond jobs, it has deep social implications. Cashiers and packers enable human interaction, something many of us take for granted, but which for lonely, socially isolated people can make a huge difference.

At the ‘Aspen Ideas Festival’ during a panel discussion on the topic of loneliness, an epidemic that affects both physical and mental health, experts noted that there is a “powerful body of research shows that lonely people are more likely to become ill, experience cognitive decline, and die early”. Psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda of The Friendship Bench Project further noted how irreplaceable human interaction is, especially because most people are unlikely to admit to feeling lonely.

His words resonated deeply with me. I was reminded of a trip I took went to Paris, earlier this year. The airport I used was heavily automated. You check yourself in, print your own bag tags and load your own luggage. This was a very foreign experience for me. Airports are a place I associate with human interaction from heartbroken lovers saying goodbye to their partners, to watching families and friends reunited with their loved ones.

But for someone like me who mostly travels alone, my own interactions are usually with airport workers. The gentle smile and wave of an actual human being wishing you “safe travels” or even after being unable to check-in online, talking to someone trying to see if there’s a way they can get you on a window seat or least an aisle one. Sometimes it all starts with a “where are you headed to?”, a question that more often than not leads to a long conversation that covers a range of topics.  These are all interactions I usually take for granted, but which I found myself longing for when they were absent. This made me feel lonely in ways that going online couldn’t undo.

On the other hand, I also remember being at OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg for a flight last year and being asked if I was okay when I dropped off my luggage. Even though I insisted that I was okay, there was something comforting about having an actual human being see I wasn’t and ask me about it. I remember starting to feel funny as I approached the security checkpoint and running to the closest dustbin, only to vomit non-stop. The lady at the counter, who had clearly been watching me, along with various airport staff then surrounded me. Someone helped me out of my sweater, while another gave me a glass of water. Being surrounded by human beings in that moment was just soothing in ways I can’t explain.

Of course service staff are not the only people in supermarkets and airports. But most times fellow customers and passengers are in their own worlds, with people, on their phones or distracted in some other way. They aren’t compelled to interact with you unlike people working there for whom interaction, no matter how brief, is a part of their job.

Given my experiences, it’s not hard for me to imagine the ways in which self-service and smart automation could reduce these human encounters. And if I felt as lonely as I did at the Paris airport and benefited as I did from in person interaction in Johannesburg, how much more true so for socially isolated people?

So beyond jobs, something we should be grappling when debating the impact of these automated services is what kind of society are we trying to create and does it incorporate human welfare. To do this will require deep thinking about ways in which we can balance harnessing the potential opportunities created by new forms of automation, while mitigating the unintended consequences thereof. I have no answers of how this balance should be struck and think these answers won’t be easy to find.

I am however certain that whatever we do, we should be wary of anything that creates a value system in which social isolation and loneliness become normal.

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About Koketso Moeti

Mother. Campaigner. Political orphan. Blogger. Activator. Part time professional black. Liker of things. Lover of people. No sense of humour.