There is no substitute for human beings

In supermarkets, banks and now railway stations, helpful humans are being replaced by half-baked tech.

Lauren Smith

Topics Science & Tech UK

Buying a train ticket in the UK is about to get even more difficult. It seems that someone, somewhere, thought it would be a good idea to close the vast majority of ticket offices on the rail network. Staff will be sacked and replaced by self-service ticket machines in an attempt to cut costs.

These plans have been met with anger and bewilderment from the public. Understandably so. The problems it raises should be obvious. Did no one consider the elderly, who might struggle with figuring out the technology by themselves? Or what about people with disabilities, who might need assistance at a train platform? Or what about the plain fact that buying train tickets is already confusing enough for most people? Good luck getting a machine to explain what a ‘super-off-peak-anytime-open-month-long-weekender’ ticket is and whether it applies to your journey.

The ticket-office closures are part of a broader, grim pattern of humans being replaced by what is often subpar technology. All too often, a technological fix that promises to make our lives easier ends up doing the opposite. Things seem to work up to a point, until we need a human’s help.

Take banking. Online banking has made day-to-day transactions infinitely easier for the vast majority of us. But as a result, high-street banks have spied an excuse to close their doors. Since 2015, more than 5,000 branches have closed in the UK. This is not only bad news for those who aren’t tech-savvy or who don’t own a smartphone, who are now effectively cut off from essential banking services. It also creates huge problems for when you need something that really does require a face-to-face conversation. The minute ‘computer says no’ on your smartphone, it becomes a herculean task to get hold of an actual human being to solve your problem.

Then there’s the scourge of self-checkouts in supermarkets. These devices are billed as time-savers, but they often end up adding needless, painful minutes to your shop. Invariably, there’s an item whose barcode won’t scan. Or you have to wait five minutes for a member of staff to check your ID. Rather than getting rid of cashiers, self-checkout forces the customer to do the cashier’s job, only less efficiently.

Amazon’s chain of Fresh stores takes the self-checkout concept even further. It’s supposed to offer an entirely checkout-free experience. Instead of manning tills, staff loiter about the entrance, explaining to customers the correct way to shop. Inevitably, a large queue ends up forming to speak to staff, as first-time Fresh shoppers fumble about on their smartphones trying and failing to scan a QR code. What’s sold as a ‘frictionless’ experience is anything but. Perhaps it’s no surprise that three of Amazon’s 19 UK Fresh stores have closed after only two years. For most customers, the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

There’s nothing wrong with applying technological fixes to the services we need, like shopping or banking or transport. Automation done well is a win-win. Savings on time and labour bring benefits to employers, employees and consumers alike. A supermarket where you can shop, walk out and be charged later, without scanning a single item, sounds like a great idea. But it does need to actually work.

Our elites wax lyrical about a future transformed by artificial intelligence. They want us to put our faith in self-driving cars and humanoid robots. But how are we supposed to buy into any of that, when we can’t get the self-checkout to weigh our fruit and veg?

There is a real anti-humanism in this drive towards self-service everything. The banks, the railways and supermarkets either assume (wrongly) that a computer can adequately replace a member of staff. Or perhaps they don’t care whether it can. They seem as indifferent to the plight of the sacked employee as they are to their frustrated customers.

It turns out it is far harder to replace people than our leaders ever imagined. There really is no substitute for a living, breathing, helpful human.

Lauren Smith is an editorial assistant at spiked.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Science & Tech UK


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