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An Invitation to Automation

“It takes away thinking”

About four years ago while I was still working at BBVA, I visited San Francisco for several meetings including one with Apple about Apple pay. After I finished the meetings in downtown in the first couple of days I took a car from the hotel as it was cheaper than the Uber to meet with stubborn Apple executives. 

As it was about more than an hour drive from downtown San Francisco to Cupertino, we were chatting our way with the driver talking about weather, world affairs, and of course the traffic. He had his mobile phone attached to the dashboard with a map app open. I asked him if he was from San Francisco to find out whether he knew his way or needed to use the map app to reach our destination. He said that he was a local and he knew where Apple was located. Then he said he loved using the map app as I quote “it takes away thinking”. I was shocked! One could argue that it included traffic info, accident info etc., hence it was useful to keep it open. But to love an app as it took away thinking???

What are we if we don’t think?

I am sure you come across many Uber drivers by now who have no clue about the city they drive in and follow the instructions on the screen like a robot.

And here’s my point. If human creative input into a process is not needed any more, that job is already being automated and it is a matter of maturity before full automation comes.

The Uber and Lyft driving is already in this phase.

You may say “hey if driving is going to get safer and if I could read, write emails and look around instead of driving, why not.” Well the implications are not only limited to us drivers enjoying ourselves a bit more. Thousands of professional drivers may be out of jobs. (these types of  job and future security threats lead to the rise of populist leaders in many countries). Another impact will be even more drastic. Today we have many car companies and even more brands and models. Do you think if the driverless cars become the norm will we have more or less choice? Unfortunately the history shows us we the consumers left with less choices. Take airlines. Due to national carriers we seem to have many options. Yet who produces the airplanes we fly in? Boing and Airbus only. Or look at different mobile phones we use.  Only two operating systems control 90% of them. Or plastic cards; consumers around the world carry payment cards from thousands of different banks. Yet Visa MasterCard and China Union Pay control 95% of them. How many messaging apps are there and who owns majority of them? Well, handful and Facebook are the answers. When was the last time you used a search engine besides Google?

Hence so far, globalization and automation failed to introduce more choice for the consumers. I fear self driving cars will face the same outcome.

Another area up for automation is big brand retailing in the US. When you go to a shopping mall in America today and enter a known brand retailer, 90% of the time the people who work there have very little idea what they sell, what is in the store, how to answer questions about the materials and so on. The whole process is very impersonal. The only time they interact with you is while you pay. There are usually long lines and the average time you wait is most likely longer than the time you spent to find what you wanted to buy. Don’t you love the question they ask while you take your card out to pay? ”did you find everything you were looking for? As if they have no role in helping the customers. With that sort of physical sale environment e-commerce is picking up more and more sales. It is only a matter of time before the big retail names start closing their physical stores. Remember toys r us? Bad service coupled with the fact that many items they sold needed no touch and feel, enabled e-commerce much faster.

Yet in this area too, Amazon and Alibaba dominate. Not many choices again.

Another area that went through a big change already is travel. Up until 10 years ago there were many travel agents to hep you to book a flight. Today most people buy their tickets and reserve their hotel rooms through internet. Once I was going back to Europe from US with a United flight. While checking in I gave my Star Alliance card. The girl at the counter looked at me and asked what it was! I had to explain that United was part of Star Alliance and I wanted my frequent card number to be processed. She had no idea what I was talking about. Imagine trying to buy a ticket from her. Wouldn’t you prefer a web site where no such illiteracy could not be present?

And no surprise here either: Expedia, and google flights dominate this space.

We the humans through our negligence invite automation to replace us. It is not that the tech folks are on a mission to replace humans. It is the majority of humans who undermine themselves by underutilizing their brains.

Close down Google for a week today and observe how millennials have a very hard time interacting with their environment. Many would be in shock and would almost stop functioning for week! For them anything they need to know and do, start with Google.

Unless societies develop better ways to educate young people to facilitate interaction with their physical environment and unless companies invest much more into training their employees for better service, customers will prefer wherever they get faster and more efficient interaction. A robot (automation, AI…) or a human. So far my money is on robots…

PS: How to handle the growing dominance of fewer companies in newly emerging technologies is the subject of another article….

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