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Automation: are we the problem?

I’m forever seeing stuff pop up on discussion sites as to whether automation is an encroaching evil or a marvellous opportunity.

To a growing number of people in the service industries, running your business by algorithm is a good commercial option.

Health, financial, and human resources sectors are all cashing in on the benefits of smart systems that take the time-consuming drudge out of things. The potential downside however is that much of it is presently done by relatively low-skilled humans.

And who knew that the biggest threat to jobs via automation would actually come from our own actions as consumers?

For example, when is the last time you bought car insurance face to face? Did you use the self-service pump at the petrol station? How about the supermarket? Did you pay at the till or use the auto-thingy that habitually fails to recognise something even through its patently a damned banana?

Then you have the ‘apps’ that allow shoppers to buy their goods without even having to use the till at all. Marks & Spencer has become the latest food retailer to try out technology where you can scan barcodes on your phone, pay via the app and then walk out of the shop.

Having once used a hand-held scanner and found I’d mistakenly clicked the same pack of cat food eight times, I’m not convinced about this consumer boon - but I accept that I’m in a minority.

In fact, opinion data suggests that people don’t see the advancement of smart technology into their lives as any sort of threat. Regardless of the Facebook scare stories and worries as to whether your TV is actually watching you watching it, a large proportion, especially young adults, think it’s all pretty cool.

Yet as one think-tank points out, given the continuing reliance of the UK economy upon the service sector, change is undoubtedly going to mean less employment opportunities in future – and mostly for young adults.

The phenomenon of ‘anthropomorphism’, attributing human traits to inanimate objects and appliances, is nothing new. We all curse the kettle for being too slow.

I guess the real difference comes when we start treating people like expendable machines.

Have we entered an alternative reality?

It’s a familiar enough science-fiction plot; a guy walks through a doorway to find himself in an alternative reality where none of the familiar norms apply. He is then confronted with the choice of accepting this bizarre new world or somehow getting back to his own normality.

I used to vaguely wonder how that might feel. Of course, that was before I started seeing headlines like “Ex-minister urges cabinet mutiny over Brexit plans” or “Labour MPs ready to back May’s Brexit deal” or “Theresa May 'should back £2bn extra funding for welfare', says Iain Duncan Smith”.

I’ve long been of the opinion that the political pendulum is stuck at the irrational end. Ministers, past and present, can come out with outrageously mindless stuff and no-one is surprised anymore.

I read that a majority of people have lost interest in whether Brexit is hard, soft or slightly chewy – indicative I suppose of the same ambivalence that brought us to this present pass.

But what is truly surreal is that despite presiding over the most dysfunctional government in living memory, Conservatives hold a four point lead over Labour in the opinion polls.

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