Automation, artificial intelligence and robots are in the news a lot because they represent the awesome—in the real sense of the word—impact these technologies are already having on the way we live and work. The promise of more freedom, convenience, and lower cost seems futuristic until you’re sitting in the back seat of a Uber taxi that you smartphone summoned only moments before.
The Uber app told you the wait time for your taxi, and even alerted you when it arrived. The driver whose rating you could check, also knew your destination and the fastest way to get there before you got in. Best of all: you don’t have to tip him or even pay him because the trip cost is automatically billed to your credit card—and it’s half the cost of what a regular taxi would have cost. (Wonder how the driver feels about that?)
The system minimizes or even eliminates any need to talk to the driver, and with driverless cars on the horizon, soon no one in the front seat will there be, but you probably won’t notice—unless you look up from your smartphone.
Which leads me to think that perhaps the biggest impact of technology is the cutting off of people from other people.
Less warm bodies more cold screens
We’ve already been glimpsing people-less shopping service with Amazon, and people-less service delivery with ATMs, self-service check in, and fill-ups at the gas station.
We’re touching less warm bodies and more cold screens. It’s rapidly becoming a do-it-yourself, self-service economy with people relegated to intervention roles when things go wrong.
Airports maybe the best place to notice this technological impact. Airports are where many of us early adopters are trained and experimented on in the push towards a self-service future.
Now I don’t travel as often as I used to and maybe that’s why the automation changes stand out for me. But then again you tend to notice when instead of a human being, you get a monitor sans smiley face. I’ve gotten used to it with check-in and passport check but self-service baggage check was new to me and for some reason seems like a tipping point —even though it’s been around since 2008.
Allow me to share my story.
Self-service baggage check
This particular morning in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I was feeling a bit cocky having pre-selected my seat and printed out my boarding pass, and I had no reason to be concerned when I was directed to a Iane leading to the baggage check where I was greeted not by a smiling face behind a counter, but by mostly empty space where a counter should have been. There were huge openings everywhere a passenger would normally be leaning while chatting with an airline agent, and from afar, it must have looked like we were food for a multi-mouthed monster.
I stood bravely in front of the sleeping beast looking for signs of what to do next—hieroglyphics along the edge of its big mouth maybe. I soon recognized a familiar screen with instructions. It asked me for my passport or boarding pass—can’t remember the exact request— but it was enough for me to begin looking for the familiar passport reader I’d already become familiar with for self-service check-in. I complied and it immediately identified my flight. I confirmed my flight destination when asked, and then it told me to insert the adhesive label (slithering from a little slit), through my baggage handle.
How difficult could this be right?
I who had mastered self-service check-in, embraced online booking, and was undaunted by Nescafe coffee makers, would not be intimidated by self-administering a baggage tag.
This is what my cerebral cortex was saying, but underneath my commando bravado I heard my lizard brain saying “That’s a mighty long strip. Think we can get both sides to lineup?” I looked around to make sure no one saw that uncertainty flash across my face.
No need to worry; the 42 or so Eiffel-towered blue-clad KLM agents (all women) were all busy with not looking anywhere in my direction.
Good. “Don’t show fear” I said under my breath, “they can sense fear.”
I may have even attempted a little whistle, I can’t remember, but if I did I had to stop. I needed all of my mental faculties for the task at hand: finding that almost invisible border where the back of the adhesive strip would peel off to allow me to stick the two sides together. They were hard enough to find on those address labels to stick on your bag, but this was to be a real challenge.
I spent the next 4 hours (probably mins) trying to find this invisible telltale sign that would allow me to insert the edge of my fingernail and liberate the stickiness, but for me no sign would there be.
I took out my reading glasses, then did my best Stevie Wonder impression, moving my fingertips over every square cm of the label while shifting my weight from one leg to the next and tilting my head, eyes closed, from side to side. The adhesive border would not give up its secret location.
With every passing minute I appreciated airline staff even more.
I had seen many an airline person deftly handcuff my suitcase by inserting the baggage label through the bag handle, and then stick both sides together with police precision. Many a time I marvelled at a 60 kg cutie (not sexist, could be a guy), who would then toss my seeming 1000 kg bag onto the conveyor belt behind like it was last year’s iPhone, and today I couldn’t even get the backing off this bar-coded plastic label necessary for me and my bag’s eventual reunification; and how could I possibly lineup the ends of such a long label, even if I could find where to peel off the adhesive back.
My best baby seal glances for attention drew no response from the blue cladded KLM centurions. “They probably club baby seals to death” I thought.
Look at this face, dammit!
But my pitiful countenance did not go unnoticed, and a voice said “Just line up the two sides they will stick together.” At the time, it occurred like a religious experience, like a voice from a burning bush, but it was probably just the more experienced traveller next to me who had done this before.
I obeyed and lo and behold they—like the voice said—did stick together, but severely, unacceptably I thought, mis-aligned so that almost ‘/3 of the non-sticky, (but yet somehow sticky) sides were exposed. Embarrassed and ashamed, I trepidly offered my bag, with obviously mis-aligned baggage label, to the mouth of the baggage monster, half-expecting the beast to spit it back at me with a booming voice saying,
“UNITED ANGRY! PASSENGER BAD!!” followed by the blue clad Centurions rushing to escort me and my incompetently labelled bag out the exit doors and tossing me unceremoniously onto the airport curb.
But nothing happened.
Instead a text message appeared declaring my bag properly labelled, and the beast swallowed my bag.
Not so much as a “Nice job” or “Taste good” but compared to the angry voice I was expecting I was just happy to have escaped with some of my dignity intact.
Instead of a “thank you” it did regurgitate a reclaim stub, and I placed it in my wallet and headed toward airline security where, while waiting in line to be de-shoed, de-belted, de-bagged, de-jacketed, de-hatted, and de-pocketed, by scores of unsmiling uniformed warm bodies, I swear I heard a voice say, “don’t worry my son, self-service security check is coming too.”
I actually don’t know how to feel about that.
Here’s a video of how self-service baggage check works. Wish I had seen it before.