When I was a young girl, I liked to watch reruns of The Jetsons with my brother. At the time, the space-age futuristic inventions and contraptions fascinated me and seemed impossibly cool. I thought they could never happen. While I watched flying cars, a conveyor belt George rode on to get dressed in the morning, and Rosie, the robot maid, I thought life would be so much easier with these nifty innovations.
Now, of course, I marvel that the Hanna-Barbera team could have come up with those concepts back in the 60’s, and how close we are to having so many of them now in the 2000’s. But many of the new, real technologies aren’t giving me warm and fuzzy feelings. As a matter of fact, lately I’ve been getting more jaded and frustrated with things that are supposed to make life easier.
There is a new robot at my local Stop & Shop supermarket. It roams the aisles, beeping, apparently looking for spills and hazards in the aisles. It will supposedly eventually be upgraded to be able to check inventory and place orders for missing product, but it can’t do that yet. I have no idea if it has a name. My name for it is Useless. The other day I rounded the corner to aisle 7 and there it was, stopped in the middle of the aisle. Its lights had changed from blue to blinking white. It announced, over and over again, in both English and Spanish “Caution, hazard detected.” Whenever this metal beast detects a perceived threat like spilled produce, not only does it repeat that phrase, but it automatically starts an announcement in the store PA system to say “Clean up needed in Aisle 7.” I looked down the aisle, and the only issue I saw was one cereal box that was on the floor leaning up against the bottom shelf. I picked it up and put it back on the shelf, and like an idiot, started talking to the robot. “It’s ok, you can shut up now and keep going.” But of course, that doesn’t work. A store employee must come to the robot and push appropriate buttons to reset it and send it on its way.
So let me get this straight. Unlike Rosie, this robot can’t really do anything, it can only point out issues, then waits for someone to come take care of it. I don’t need a robot to do that, I have men in my life who have fine-tuned that skill. I was in the store for only 45 minutes, yet heard the “Clean up in aisle…..” warning no less than four times. Which means the robot saw something – anything – that could have been an issue, and had to call for human backup. While Useless was stuck in my aisle, another woman came along and we chatted briefly. She informed me that she heard that the price tag for Useless was $65,000. Looking around the store, I saw lots of other things I’d spend that money on if it was up to me. But hey, I’m just the customer, what do I know? When I made my way up to the front of the store, I watched one staff member hustle over to reset Useless because it had stopped again, this time in Aisle 11. I asked the cashier if hearing the “clean up” messages drove her crazy. She sighed and said “It happens All. Day. Long. Yet another crazy way to try to get rid of us humans.”
And there it is, the fear we all harbor deep inside as technology continues to expand and roll toward a Jestons-onian world… that some day humans will be replaced by machines. Fifty years ago that seemed like a crazy Twilight Zone concept, fodder only for scary movies and nightmares. Yet today we see the potential inching forward. Self check-out aisles in the store (don’t get me started on that colossally screwed up concept), drones to make deliveries, and digital currency – all very real things, all of which I’ve so far avoided. At restaurants like Panera and McDonalds, we can now ignore the humans behind the counter and tap our orders into a kiosk. My son, who has been working at Panera, said “they can’t get rid of us.. all the old people come to us because they don’t understand how to use the technology, or just don’t even want to try.” Ok, so I guess I’m in that old person category, because I have no interest in using the machine, I’d much rather talk to a human.
I know my resistance holds no threat to technological advances. I know that kiosks, robots, and computers will continue to advance and improve until they can do much more, and I will have to accept and welcome future innovations. I need to assure myself that humans will always be necessary, and some day Rosie will become reality and I will be happy because she will be able to do my dishes for me, take care of my grocery shopping, make me some tea, and even ask me how my day was. Until then, I need to be patient and accept that we’ve gotta start somewhere – and it’s ok.
So I guess it is a matter of perspective. As I look around my house, I see where my dear husband has left little piles of projects every where he’s been. Business paperwork in the kitchen, his work bag in the dining room, shipping boxes on the floor, his laptop and other materials in a pile in the living room, work boots and socks near the door….and I consider that if I had that goofy robot from Stop & Shop in my house, and it was somehow programmed to send communications in a frequency that only my husband could hear and would have to come do clean up and push reset, that could be pretty darn handy.
You know, like a Digital Nag. I’m warming up to the future already.