Artificial Intelligence driven solutions have appeared in almost all aspects of our lives in the past few years. This takeover has been somewhat stealthy, our favourite companies adopted new technologies one by one. Before we knew it, we were not talking to humans but machines using natural language processing. Many of our emails are answered by automated systems, we shop for products based on personalised recommendations we get in emails or in targeted ads which appear just for us based on just what we have been looking at. We are matched with the “ideal choice” even before we asked for one. As shopping, dating, entertainment, job search, traveling, eating and personal life management are aided by algorithms more and more: are we happier in the midst of this change or is something being taken away from us? Many fear a world “being taken over by machines” but is a real part of the issue our obsession with efficiency that’s making us machine like?
Companies are out there to make profit and we can’t fault them for that. Whether they offer goods or services, they want to engage as many customers and clients as quickly and ‘efficiently’ as possible. They need to reach them, guide them through a seamless process — and make sure they get paid — fast The consumer or client on the other end might or might not be in a similar position. Speed and efficiency could be their priority, yes, but yet again they might just enjoy shopping around, spending time, getting ideas and talking to people during the process.
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When I was a young parent with small children, my husband and I used to occasionally get a babysitter for the afternoon and go to Central London to check out the stores. Sometimes we bought something, but often we didn’t. Half the fun was getting away, being alone together, going from store to store and enjoying each other’s company. Fast forward ten years we do the majority of our shopping online. Algorithms know what we need before we do and Amazon is only one of the many retailers that bring the items to our door within a day. So I often wonder: while online retailers made shopping so convenient, did they destroy a magical, unpredictable part of the shopping experience in the process?
The truth is, whether our needs take us to the doctor’s surgery or the travel agent (who uses one of those these days…!?), human interaction has been the norm for as long as those needs existed. Technology has been a great relief for us all when looking to save time and increase convenience. Appointments are scheduled faster, diseases are diagnosed in seconds, goods are acquired within hours and personal connections are made in a blink of an eye on professional and matchmaking sites. But the need for human interaction and adventure has not gone away and I don’t think it ever will. Nobody wants to hear a cancer diagnosis from a machine. The telephone conversation with a doctor’s receptionist might be the only conversation an elderly person has that day. A trip to the store might be the only excuse a person struggling with depression has to leave their house. Although it would be easy to say that people who need to bypass efficient algorithms can just go ahead and do so, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Brick and mortar stores are going out of business, customer service lines rely on NLP to direct us to the websites and Netflix offers up movies to watch before we get a chance to ask our friends for recommendations. For those of us who still remember having fun while making mistakes, this might feel like a huge loss. With bars full of people who were matched on an algorithm driven site, people will not notice the friendly stranger sitting alone at a table and the family on a Wazze aided efficient road trip will not discover that hidden gem of a village while getting lost. For this we need to make a special effort now. We need to get off the couch, get out of the room, turn off the device, make a stop at the stores while they are still out there. Once in the store we need to go to the till that’s operated by a person. If many of us do, they’ll hire more humans. Is that effort worth it? I think it is and I think it’s essential!
If we want to remain fun filled, mistake making, social, caring humans we just need to say yes to other humans and no to convenience. Hopefully this need will be noticed by the companies that focus on speed and efficiency. For now, the options are still out there and they will stay if we use them.
Bogi Szalacsi is a Senior Associate with infoNation, based in London. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @infoNation5.