A humanless experience: are we happy just to interact with robots?

Jon Deery gives a shocking insight into how surveillance technology may irreversibly alter the future of our food shop

Jon Deery
16th April 2021
Image Credit: Flickr
We can now do a full weekly shop without ever interacting with another human being, we can have our blood oxygen saturation, skin temperature, breathing rate, and pulse taken without the presence of another human being, and we can even have years of therapy without actually talking to a real person. Our economy is determined to remove as many people from our daily interactions as possible.

“This is the next stage in the future of retail so I wanted to see it for myself,” said 63-year-old Chris Griffin, after leaving Amazon’s new Fresh store in Ealing. “I suppose it could make shopping more impersonal. But the technology was so smooth, so easy to use – one scan and you’re in. I think the supermarkets will have to catch up to this.”

“Just Walk Out” technology could become commonplace in the near future

Amazon Fresh uses advanced surveillance technology to monitor every movement of every shopper, in order to know what items they have in their hand at any given time. This means there’s no need for till workers, and therefore no need for any interaction with them, because you can simply pick up your items, leave the shop, and the system will automatically charge your Amazon account.

File:Amazon Fresh store.jpg
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s an extension of the same logic we find at modern supermarket self-checkouts, just made even more “frictionless”, and even more surveillance-heavy. Amazon is offering this “Just Walk Out” technology to all other supermarkets who might be interested, meaning the technology could become commonplace in the near future.

In the workplace environment, algorithmic “optimisation” of human work has led to inhumane, dangerous working conditions

An elimination of human interaction is present for Amazon’s factory workers, too. In 2018, worker Aaron Callaway complained that: “I need more interaction with other people. The only time I speak to a human being at work is when a manager comes to check my progress or when a problem solver comes to fix something. My main interaction is with the robots.”

Image Credit: Youssef Naddam on Unsplash

Josh Dzeiza has written compellingly that what we’ve really got to worry about is robots taking managerial roles: “The robots are watching over hotel housekeepers, telling them which room to clean and tracking how quickly they do it. They’re managing software developers, monitoring their clicks and scrolls and docking their pay if they work too slowly. They’re listening to call centre workers, telling them what to say, how to say it, and keeping them constantly, maximally busy.”

In the workplace environment, algorithmic “optimisation” of human work has led to inhumane, dangerous working conditions in factories, and turned call centre work into an experience akin to that of nurses on a trauma ward. Large strikes among Amazon workers have taken place against algorithmic management.

But on a service user basis, we still seem to be content with less human interaction. An Amazon Fresh store customer described the Amazon Go technology as “like magic”. A recent survey about robots in healthcare found people would be more than happy to have a nasal swab from a robot, be turned over in their bed by a robot, or even have a robot insert their catheter.

We are building a society in which you could go about your entire life without once interacting with another human being

Social media algorithms already guide our social lives. And advanced therapy apps also now exist that use artificial intelligence to treat people for free, pushing our robotic interactions into an even more intimate space. The app Woebot, for example, has text message conversations with users and discusses their mental health problems.

We’re allowing our interactions to become entirely automated. We are building a society in which you could go to work, buy groceries, and then have therapy about your traumatic workday, every day, without once interacting with another human being. 

And from one human to another, I’m asking you: is that where we want to live?

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