Rise of the Machines

robotsMy dad and I were having lunch at Chili’s. Amid the dozen or so menus on the table (for appeteasers, milk shakes, burgers, cocktails, pizzas, fajita, etc) there was a computer consul. It stood near the edge of the table and its screen constantly displayed dizzying and colorful advertisements. I thought they were for games and stuff, but I didn’t look more closely at it.

Our waitress was Janice. She was friendly, refilled our iced-teas with haste, brought me extra pickles. She didn’t dawdle at the table or tell us about her personal problems. AKA: everything one can want in a lunch waitress. At the end of the meal I asked Janice if I could pay.

“Cash or card?” she asked.


“OK.” She pointed to the computer consul. “Have you paid on the computer before?”

“Um. No.”

Janice walked me through the payment process. She stood next to me and told me each step. I finished, tipped her (I think, unless the computer gets a cut) and then got pressed (by the computer) into filling in feedback. I finally gave up after 6 or 7 questions, since I wanted to get home by dinner time. Janice had already left and gone to chat with her robot manager. I left the receipt on the table.

Later in the day, when an ATM machine kept hold of my debit card, I got a little panicky. The same panicky anyone gets when their entire fundage is being held captive by a thing that can’t enact reason and hand it back to you. I went in to the bank and informed the teller, who sent out the manager. The manager came out and gave a shrug that conveyed impotence.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said.

What I said: “Um…”

What I wished I had said: “If this ATM’s name is HAL, I am fucking out of here.”

The ATM (HAL) gave my card back, but paranoia was aflutter. An hour later, I read an article in the Huffington Post in which the writer describes a similar experience with a barista at a coffee shop in LaGuardia Airport. She tried to give her order to the (human) woman standing behind the counter but was instantly directed to enter it into a machine while the (human) woman stood waiting to be told by the machine what to make.

I know that dealing with computers and technology is simply part of the world we live in, as is the fact that technology is taking over jobs. We already have self-checkout at the grocery stores, we order sandwiches at the WAWA on a computer, and I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a human at customer service.

But it’s still a bit disconcerting. Exacerbating the anxiety is seeing the humans stand there and do technology’s bidding. Janice had to tell me how to deal with the computer, but couldn’t take my card herself. Each self-checkout consul has a human to help out. And those WAWA sandwiches are made by humans.

It’s the rise of the machines! OK, I’m being (jokingly) paranoid, but is anyone else concerned about the fact that we’re doing what the machines tell us to do? I am not bemoaning the disappearance of the mythical “good ole days.” I do, however, enjoy interacting with humans at times, and some of those times are while ordering food and coffee.

Service staff are far from the only ones in danger of technological replacement. Articles by technology writers suggest that roofers, accountants, line cooks, telemarketers, paralegals, and cashiers are the most likely to lose their jobs to technology first. Now, will the humans who used to hold these positions be paid to direct others how to use the machines that now do their jobs? How long will it be before other machines tell us how to deal with these machines?

It’s not only jobs. On a recent trip to the shore, my sister used her amazingly helpful GPS. We named her Carol. Carol told us when there were police ahead and gave alternate routes in order to help us avoid traffic and construction. Convenient and practical. But Carol also told my sister that she was speeding. How long will it be before Carol can turn my sister into the police?

The issue of human error in vehicles won’t matter for too much longer as cars will be driven by machines soon anyway. Google, Uber, (and others) are already putting out self-driving cars. Although according to recent articles the cars are not exactly driver-free. For the time being, the car will be driven by a computer and monitored by a “safety driver,” or, as I used to enjoy referring to them, “drivers.” In any case, automatic pilots in cars seems to be the ultimate goal. Goodbye taxi drivers.

But will it eventually be goodbye pilots?

I guess I am just worried when the computers are going to come for my job. I just hope I don’t have to sit in a chair behind it to fix any language mistakes it makes. Or maybe I’ll have to tell a computer one day how to make snarky jokes about losing my job to a computer.

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