Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The unexpected item in your in basket is AI and it’s sneaking into your life in a most pervasive way

It’s hard to believe, but it’s 15 years since electronic tolling was introduced on the M50; up until then, since the motorway was opened in 1990, tolls were collected by cashiers from their toll booths beside the Westlink bridge.

It’s fair to say that the automation was widely welcomed since queueing at the toll booth was becoming the stuff of legend.

Still, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some bad, as it were, and the process of automation has spread beyond collecting tolls, into supermarkets and into paying bills online.

Clearly there are benefits, but we remain firmly in the camp which believes that people and not automation have to remain a choice when any fee or bill is being paid.

Some time ago, electronic signs appeared near the M4 toll booths, not too far from Enfield, advising motorists that “the plaza is in automated mode”, meaning that there were no cashiers.

In another sign of our naivety, we thought this was a temporary measure – but no. The staff operating the booths have themselves become a part of legend. They’re gone, and automated mode is here to stay.

Ditto supermarkets. When self-service/scanning units were introduced into big supermarkets, initially this too was welcomed. It certainly made the process of getting clear of the supermarket a bit faster.

Again, there is a benefit, but the downside is that the self-service units were increased in number and the number of staff offering to check you out fell. Another loss for jobs.

Now these self-service units are appearing with more frequency in even the small convenience shops. We’re encouraged to welcome the move, we’re reminded of the benefits, but nobody mentions that technology is replacing people.

The issue of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is very current, but in truth it’s been going on on our motorways and in our shops for a long time, we just didn’t have a fancy name for it.

We should say that we protest with our feet. We can’t avoid the automated tolling on the M50 or the M4 (at least on the M4 we insist on using coins and refuse to wave a bank card at the gate, insisting it does some work) but we earnestly avoid the self-service units in supermarkets. We prefer people.

When using Dublin Bus, we refuse to use the Leap card facility and instead present ourselves with a broad smile to the bus driver and offer our coins. We prefer people.

It would make you wonder what happens to the extra money that the toll companies and supermarkets make by insisting that they’re doing us a favour when really it’s the other way around. Cheaper prices? Well no, tolls only go up and supermarkets continue to make indecent profits.

We’re not saying this is a one-way deal – there are benefits to availing of automated systems and we don’t criticise anyone for using them. But where will it end?

Surely all of this is just a down ramp into AI becoming more prevalent and, as it does, jobs will go. There are fears that AI will be too intelligent, making decisions that outwit its masters and maybe becoming a danger to society itself.

That’s for another day; we’ll let the men in white coats work on that one, hopefully all digital systems are controlled by red-blooded people but time will tell.

In the meantime rest assured that this newspaper uses 100% human effort to come up with the words, and automation isn’t on the agenda…of course, that may or not be good news from your point of view.

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