Human-less service: Are we ready for robots to rule the world?

It is hard to remember a time when you went to the supermarket and did not have the option to use a self-service checkout.

The reality is, it wasn’t that long ago that we had no choice but to approach an actual human being in order to pay for our stuff before leaving the store. 

Those pesky self-service tills we all seem to have a love/hate relationship with have only been around in the UK for the past ten years or so, but they are now so commonplace it feels strange when there isn’t one available.

They certainly can be quicker, when they work properly, but really only come into their own when you only have a few bits to scan.

Checkout staff are still key when it comes to a big shop, right? 

Who can be bothered to pile a week’s shopping up on that little space next to the self-checkout till? 

Give us a conveyor belt when our trolley is full any day of the week, even if we do have to make old-fashioned conversation. Tsk.

(Just kidding…we love a chat).

Whether we like it or not, the retail and service industry in general is slowly becoming less and less humanised as technology evolves and machines replace some of the jobs humans have always done.

We have to admit, this does stick in our throat a little as a business that so values human connection and emotion.

If you think about it, life started to become more automated decades ago without us even realising it, with the likes of ticket machines and vending machines.

When we were growing up there were fewer things more magical than being able to buy a packet of Wheat Crunchies and a Marathon (millennials, ask your parents) out of a glass cabinet in the local leisure centre.

That delicious anticipation, once you had made your selection with the correct letter and number combo, as the spiral rack holding your favourite snack slowly twisted to release it, so it dropped down into the tray below.

Did anyone else feel a tiny bit scared of putting your hand in that flap though, just in case there was another hand inside waiting to grab you? 

Just us then.

Things have moved on considerably since then and, in recent years, the need for convenience and speed of service seems to have accelerated dramatically.

Many human-less services are either being trialled or are in full swing, with self-checkout and the like being just the tip of the iceberg.

One major online retailer, the biggest in fact, has taken the concept of the human-less shopping experience to a whole new level.

We are not talking about internet shopping here, these are physical stores so technologically advanced they are almost fully automated. 

There are only half a dozen of them in the world so far, all in the US, but Amazon Go stores could be a familiar sight on our high streets or retail parks in the future.

In an Amazon Go store, once you have downloaded the relevant app to your smartphone and have logged in, you can simply take what you need from the shelves and leave.

A bit like a mini-bar in a posh hotel, sensors on the shelves can tell what you have taken and even what you have put back. 

As you exit the store, your bill is calculated automatically and the correct amount is taken from your account.

Insane, but brilliant. We think.

Human-less restaurants are slowly starting to appear in some major cities around the world too.

The Wow Bao chain in the US boasts at least one fully automated set-up where customers can pre-order on their app, or on an in-store device, and simply have their food delivered to one of a dozen perspex cubby holes in the wall.

You just grab your food and go…you don’t even need to say thank you, which is hard when you are British.

Or, if you want to go full-blown futuristic, you could pop to Boston for a quick bite at Spyce which has a robotic kitchen.

Yup, you read that right. Robots who can cook your meal, in under three minutes.

If you were a child of the eighties we can pretty much guarantee you are thinking about the robots from the Smash adverts right now. 

You are way off track, but that was a nice bit of nostalgia wasn’t it?

Regardless of the impressive nature of these tech-savvy eateries, they still need human input behind the scenes.

It comes as some comfort to us that people are still required to make the tech work in the first place.

But when it comes to human interaction, do we really favour speed and convenience over a friendly face and the personal touch only a living being can provide?

While there is a time and a place for technology to play its part in the modern world, let’s not get carried away.

The thought of losing our ability to interact and engage with people in the real world does not bear thinking about. .


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Andrew Flett