By Kim Boucher Morin
Project Coordinator, TakingITGlobal
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
In modern society, technology has tremendously altered the ways in which we interact with one another on a daily basis. Indeed, contemporary innovations have significantly reduced the need for human-to-human exchanges, favoring time and cost-efficient, non-human alternatives. In fact, a person residing in an urban environment could meet all of their basic needs with little-to-no human contact.
Ticketing machines and turnstiles allow us to use public transportation without interacting with a cashier, with some cities now moving towards online payment systems for smartcards. Apps like Uber provide taxi services at the press of a button and relay pickup and drop off information to the driver directly, meaning you can jump in without uttering a single word the whole ride. Amazon can now deliver virtually anything within 30 minutes with the use of drones through its Prime Air service. Self-checkout systems at grocery stores and food delivery apps eliminate the need for interaction with producers and sellers alike, while self check-in options are becoming increasingly popular with companies such as Airbnb and a growing number of hotels around the world.
There is no doubt we live more fast-paced, comfortable, and efficient lives than ever before. But at what cost? Are we sacrificing human connection in order to minimize human effort?
Transactional interactions become increasingly important as one ages and leaves the professional sphere along with its accompanying social circles. For many people — especially the elderly — these interactions are sometimes their only chance to have conversations over the course of the day. When 73-year-old Helen R. was asked what she thought of the new Amazon Go stores, she replied: “Are people really in such a hurry that they can’t speak to each other anymore?”
Described as “the world’s most advanced shopping technology,” the Amazon Go store leaves very little tasks to human employees. With the app on your phone and an activated Amazon account, you can walk into the Seattle store, where you will find grocery essentials and ready-to-eat options, put your selections directly into your own bag or pockets, and walk out. Amazon Go uses sensors and cameras to detect which items you select, then places them in your virtual basket and charges your account when you exit the store — all to simplify and accelerate the shopping experience.
The store opened very recently on January 29, 2018 in downtown Seattle. With a 4.5/5 rating on Yelp, Amazon Go reviews are overwhelmingly positive thus fur. Malia says, “The future of not-online shopping has arrived,” and John says it is “the best shopping experience on the planet.” It must be noted, however, that all 20 reviews seem to be written by individuals between the ages of 20 and 50.
Despite this positive public reception, the technology and its uses raise a few questions.
First, there is no doubt that such establishments may contribute to widening the generational gap. The shopping experience is intended to be rapid and requires using both a smartphone and the Amazon app. As evidenced by the median age of Yelp reviewers, the majority of shoppers are young adults. Hence, an increase in Amazon Go stores could mean an increase in social isolation among the elderly. The fact that it requires a smartphone and a credit card also makes it less accessible to lower-income shoppers and less inclusive as an overall experience. Furthermore, the tracking technology and data collection necessary for Amazon Go shopping is also a point of contention. While Amazon has not commented on their use of data collected, it is clear the technology in place is capable of amassing and storing a wide variety and quantity of data. Lastly, how will Amazon Go and similar technologies affect employment? Given that it eliminates the need for employees at check-out, this store potentially threatens the jobs of the 3.5 million cashiers currently employed in the United States.
With such concerns already arising, the future of technological innovation and its impacts on social interactions must be seriously considered. Introduced at the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, SARA — the Socially Aware Robot Assistant — epitomizes the ideological debate surrounding this topic. A product of the ArticuLab at Carnegie Mellon University, SARA is “capable of detecting social behaviors in conversation, reasoning about how to respond to the intentions behind those particular behaviors, and generating appropriate social response.” SARA was created to become the ultimate personal assistant, whether it be by facilitating conferences or educational games for ‘her human’.
The language used to describe the SARA technology is cause for concern in itself. The use of possessive pronouns such as ‘her human user’, and terms like ‘the relationship between Sara and her human’ personifies technology by giving it characteristics specific to humans and living beings, such as gender and the ability to form relationships.
The personification of non-living technologies disguises the decrease in both the quality and quantity of human interactions on a daily basis. Thus, we must ask ourselves, will innovations like SARA and Amazon Go effectively increase human performance as promised, or more likely enhance social isolation?