It was a big weekend of football here in America, but for me the most interesting story was one that followed the games: that week's edition of "60 Minutes," and in particular, the report, "Are robots hurting job growth?"
The 60 Minutes correspondent, Steve Kroft, anchored the story with an in-depth interview of MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and, if you missed it, you may want to check out the video or the transcript.
It was Kroft's introduction that had me immediately hooked. "One of the hallmarks of the 21st century is that we are all having more and more interactions with machines and fewer with human beings. At the vanguard of this new wave of automation is the field of robotics … [Robots] can be mobile or stationary, hardware or software, and they are marching out of the realm of science fiction and into the mainstream. Now they're finally here, but instead of serving us, we found that they are competing for our jobs."
Personally, I like interacting with machines when it comes to some activities. Having lived in the U.S. for nearly three decades I am still unsure about the correct response to "have a nice day!" and I find it irritating at times. At least a machine hasn't passed this remark.
Well, not to date, that is! When it comes to ATMs, they remain my preferred way to interact with my bank. Combined with online banking from my laptop, they've reduced the number of times I actually walk into my branch to less than three times a year (possibly even less than that).
It was MIT professor, Erik Brynjolfsson, who highlighted for CBS correspondent Kroft just how far we have come in terms of comfortably interacting with machines when he said, "Just a few years ago if you traveled by air you would have interacted with a human ticket agent. Today, those jobs are being replaced by robotic kiosks. Bank tellers have given way to ATMs, sales clerks are surrendering to e-commerce and switchboard operators and secretaries to voice recognition technology."
Personally, I could do without as widespread a dependence as there is today on voice recognition technology, but as for getting my boarding pass, purchasing my tires and brake pads and yes, getting to my cash, I am more than happy to be on first name terms with machines. Well perhaps not by name, but definitely by number even if it does remind me of the old TV show, "The Prisoner," in which Patrick McGoohan angrily chastised his unknown captors, saying, "I am not a number, I am a free man"!
For some time now I have been involved in exchanges with software vendors providing payment platforms, where supporting very large networks of ATMs is all part of the value-proposition of their software.
This has led me to observe just how pervasive their use is as part of welfare programs that get cash directly into the hands of those who need it most. Some of the vendors' executives are on the front lines taking a real interest in how society loves machines, and prospering as a result.
"I have spent a lot of time lately in Central and Southern America and the love of machines, particularly ATMs, is hard to miss," said Yash Kapadia, CEO at OmniPayments Inc.
I have referenced Yash a lot of late as I find he is among the few executives who are spending a considerable amount of their own time in markets they serve. The success of late he is enjoying with his payments platform, OmniPayments, is a reflection of the way these markets have warmed to his message.
Yash said, "When it comes to the social considerations of capitalizing on the ubiquity of ATMs and the lack of any sensitivity about who is accessing cash, the fact that, increasingly, governments everywhere are turning to them to distribute cash without any need of middlemen, is really nothing more than a natural outcome of governments everywhere embracing those less fortunate among us in a more humane manner."
But I have to admit, too, that I am writing this post in haste as a closing comment in the 60 Minutes story has me worried. MIT Professor Andrew McAfee observed that "The fact that computers can now understand and respond to human speech, the fact that they can actually generate prose of decent quality, they can drive cars, they can win at Jeopardy. We're seeing technology demonstrate skills that it's never, ever done before."
Generating prose of decent quality? Well, that about sums up my worst fears — I too will be replaced; I am probably a part of a dying breed as well! And with this thought, I think I will wander off to my favorite bar and order myself a stiff drink. One that comes from the top shelf, mind you, and not from one of those fancy automated dispensing systems! As much as I do like interacting with machines, there's still a line I just don't like seeing crossed.