Automation on the horizon

By Ron Scopelliti

I’m a complete sellout. I’ve utterly abandoned a principle I’ve held dear for many years, and I’ve done it not once, but several times over the past couple of weeks: I finally started using automated cashier stations.

It started a couple of weeks ago in Target, where I spend an inordinate amount of my waking hours. I’m probably in there at least three times a week buying milk or cereal or some such thing. I visit the place the way people used to visit Mr. Coombs’ Esmond Market when I was a kid. Target has become my corner store.

The cashiers have become so familiar with my Target card, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve given it a nickname and become Facebook friends with it. I imagine there being an Instagram account with group shots of my Target card pulling a duck face with the staff of the Smithfield Target, or making a peace sign while raising a Moscow Mule with them at a gastro pub.

So I recently made one of my typical Target runs at around 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, and there was only one actual cashier, tending to a line from hell. I was trying to wait patiently, but watching the shelf life of my milk diminish, and feeling my pseudo-Greek yogurt lose its chill was trying my patience. I’m not sure what happens when yogurt goes bad, but being that you’re starting out with bacteria, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to find out.

The paranoia over my dairy products congealing got to me, and that’s when I finally broke bad and gave in to automation, leaving the line and resorting to the store’s cluster of robo-cashiers.

Or maybe that isn’t when I first gave in to automation. Maybe it was two years ago when I bought my first vehicle with an automatic transmission. The car’s served me quite well so far, but I’m still getting used to it shifting itself, and all the other stuff it does without asking. For instance every now and then the Bluetooth system will randomly play an audio clip of Richard Simmons that a friend sent me in a text message. So as much as I like the car and appreciate the way automotive reliability has improved over the years, every now and then I can’t help yearning for the simplicity of a 1981 Plymouth Horizon with a four-speed manual and a cassette player.

It’s no coincidence that my thoughts turned from cashiers to cars, because so many big companies seem determined to build autonomous cars. And I’m sure auto-driving cars aren’t being developed for the convenience of consumers who’d rather play Candy Crush Saga than look at the road. They’re being developed so that Uber won’t have to pay actual drivers, and so that Amazon can get packages to your door without the expense of truckers.

Every time I use an automated checkout system, I feel like I’m putting a cashier out of work, and I probably am. All this automation is clearly aimed at bypassing the expense of paying people a living wage, and channeling more money directly to CEOs and corporate vice presidents and other people whose job titles don’t reflect any particular function that they perform.

And nobody’s safe from automation – not even writers. There are already programs to read news briefs and aggregate them into news articles, and others that gather scores and statistics, then use an algorithm to write a reasonable facsimile of a sports article.

I’ve toyed with the idea of automating my column. I’m sure with a bit of work I could create an algorithm where I type in a general subject, a few somewhat-witty observations, and a couple of obscure pop-culture references, and then leave it to some collection of subroutines to tie them all together into a cohesive piece of writing.

So we’re headed towards a day when all the cabs, buses, and trucks will drive themselves (having undoubtedly been built by robots instead of factory workers) and packages will travel from truck to mailbox via pre-programmed autonomous drones. Stores, if they even continue to exist, won’t need cashiers, and newspapers, if they continue to exist, won’t need writers.

Soon we’ll have showrooms (probably virtual) full of self-driving cars. But with so many of us unemployed due to automation, who’s going to be able to buy them?

Maybe I should look on the bright side of all this automation. The real automotive breakthrough won’t be when we eliminate the need for drivers, but when we eliminate the need for car salesmen. No more obnoxious sales pitches or fictitious conferences with the sales manager – just a kiosk asking how much it will take to put me into the passenger seat of a car that I don’t have to drive.

I wonder if the robo-dealer will set me up with an ’81 Horizon. At least it will ensure the continued employment of auto mechanics.