The automation all around us

by Sarah Firisen

I have a friend who is a travel agent. The days when we all talked on the phone to travel agents in order to book any travel are long gone. These days, for the most part, travel agents, the actual human ones, deal with business travel and high end travel for elites. My friend was telling me about being contacted by a client who was the high end elite type, at 3am, saying her email wasn’t working and could my friend text her their itinerary. Now putting aside the obnoxious behavior in expecting a reply from anyone at 3am, my first response was “doesn’t she use Tripit?” Or Google Trips, or even the airline mobile apps? At any given time, I can find all my travel details in all of those ways and sometimes others (business trips get automatically put in my Google calendar). Travel is so automated and online now, it’s amazing to me that anyone wouldn’t take advantage of these tools.

There’s a lot of hand wringing, actually maybe not enough, about automation taking jobs. But even before it has a serious impact on the labor market, it has changed a lot of other things. This Atlantic article points out that it already, and in fact for many years, has impacted how we interact with people who work at banks, stores, car parks. It’s impacted how those buildings are constructed in fact – these days, it’s rare to find a US bank that doesn’t have a large ATM foyer. I hadn’t thought about it until I read this article, but ATMs were some of the first large scale automations to really impact our day-to-day lives in a major way. Of course, these days I rarely use an ATM either; I don’t use a lot of cash and I deposit the rare check I get sent through my bank’s mobile app.

Just last night, I was having a conversation, that I seem to have quite frequently with people a generation above me about the things that are lost: kids don’t learn how to tell time anymore, don’t write cursive anymore, etc, etc. In response, I talked about logarithmic tables; when I entered senior school in the UK, at 11, I had to use these on a daily basis. By the time I started my GCSEs at 16, only a few years later, we were looking things up using scientific calculators. I’m sure that there were plenty of people at the time who thought that this was heresy. But was it? Yes, maybe something was lost. My ex-husband first studied computer science over 35 years ago when it was mandatory to learn Assembler. Who learns that now? You used to have to learn it because managing a computer’s memory was a very manual thing and important part of coding. But nowadays, modern day languages do this all for you. Has something been lost? Maybe. But people can code quicker, more easily and at a far higher level because they don’t need to think about these more low level activities. And the same was true of my logarithmic table books. And so it goes for automation.

Part of the conversation last night was around what is lost when we no longer need human beings to do lower level jobs. And what does it mean, and what does it take, to get human beings to do high value, in theory more interesting jobs as the lower level ones get automated. My point last night was, in some ways, this is an argument as old as time. The Luddites protesting the “automation” of the cotton mill in the 19th century were faced with the same arguments; working in cotton mills was horrible work that ultimately killed many of the workers because it lead to horrible lung diseases. Was it really such a terrible thing that people couldn’t do this low paid work that ultimately killed many of them? Well it seemed so at the time, but this was mainly because people didn’t have the information or the vision to see what we see in hindsight about the industrial revolution and what it meant for societal change. Is our current period of automation a similar paradigm? Because, to go back to my travel agent story, we wring our hands about automation and the coming of the robots, but to a very large extent, it’s already here. From online and kiosk check-in for flights, to self-service checkout at the grocery store, there is already far more automation than I think most of us acknowledge. We treat the “coming of the bots” as something that will one day just happen, without realizing that it’s been happening all around us for a long time, and at least so far, it hasn’t been the end of times. I don’t have figures on this, but I’m assuming that less people get employed as bank tellers these days thanks to ATMs and online banking. But I bet a lot of people still get employed by banks, many of these people to write the code and maintain the systems that enable ATMs and online banking.

There is a very good case for saying that this time is different; the level and extent and pace of automation is unprecedented and we’re not prepared, or for the most part even aware, and that’s probably mostly true. And it is shocking to me how little time our government and mainstream media  devotes to talking about this. In fact, in this current political climate, it seems to never get air time. And it truly could, and probably will, be extremely disruptive to many many industries and has the potential to cause wide scale unemployment. This is an issue we should be talking about now. But there is also a case to be made for saying, it’s already happening and we’re adapting and so maybe we just will keep doing so at a sufficient pace. Because this is what human beings do.  At least most of us who know how to get our travel schedules on our mobile phones without waking someone up at 3am.