MACHINES WITH BRAINS

The future is a place where we won’t have to talk to or hear from anyone we don’t want to

This week, Amazon announced that it’s launching a new type of grocery store. You walk in, pick up the boxes of food you want, and you walk out. Thanks to a combination of modern tracking technology, artificial intelligence, and a mobile app that has your payment information, you don’t need to interact with a single other human to get the chicken Caesar salad wrap, Diet Coke, and cupcake you so desired.

On the surface, that sounds great. The cashier-less store cuts down on friction: You don’t have to stand in line, don’t have to worry about having exact change, or make small talk with a person as they ring up your lunch. You can just walk out without even having to deal with the tedium of scanning items yourself. But, leaving aside the profound effect stores like these could have on US employment, Amazon’s announcement hints at a growing trend where technology is facilitating an existence in which we never have to talk to, or interact with, anyone that we don’t want to, both in person and online.

In recent years, technology has further enabled us to cut down on the amount of human contact we have: We no longer need to talk on the phone to order food (thanks to Seamless, Grubhub, Deliveroo, and countless other apps), or to order a cab (Lyft, Uber), or to talk to a customer service representative (chatbots, interactive voice response systems). But when we left our homes, we generally wound up having to have some sort of human interaction. That no longer needs to be the case.

Shutting out what we don’t want to engage with is typified by our social media experience. As The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler reported recently, “Facebook’s home page News Feed is run by a personalization algorithm that feeds you information it thinks you want to see,” which the Journal tested out in an interactive showing how different the news feed of one person with conservative views would be from someone with liberal leanings. The article was based on research Facebook conducted on 10 million of its own users who had marked their political beliefs on their profiles. Facebook essentially shows us more of the sorts of content that we want to see: Whether 1 million people or 100 people share that viewpoint, the social network is aiding us in creating confirmation bias for our beliefs, leaving us in a cozy little filter bubble. Similarly, on Twitter, the social network lets users block or mute other users they don’t want to hear from.

Hearing ideas from people that are not like you, that don’t come from the same place as you, challenge you to consider a different perspective. If you only hear what you want to hear, or go to places you’ve already been, or see things like what you’ve already seen, what do you ever learn? Automation, autonomy, and filter bubbles may well lead us to becoming digital shut-ins, where we only ever engage with what is likely to make us feel better. Our ability to empathize with others, especially those who are not like us, will fade when we stop engaging. A little friendly banter with an Uber driver, or a bank teller, or a grocery store cashier is a good thing.

(Obviously, this can backfire: Twitter, for example, is dealing with a widespread abuse problem, where users can say whatever they want about others, directing vitriol and hatred at those they don’t agree with. The company’s answer has been to create stronger blocking tools, rather than outright banning extreme behavior, which essentially allows you to just strengthen your already existing filter bubble.)

Automation has already infiltrated our socializing—how many times have you organized drinks, a work party, or even a date, through apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack, or Tinder?—but life may well get far more isolating as technology pervades more aspects of our lives.

It’s entirely possible, in the near future, that your day will involve only interacting with humans that you want to—and even those interactions won’t necessarily involve actual human contact. Here is the typical white-collar cubicle-dweller’s average day in 2021:

You’re woken up by soft ocean wave sounds, generated by an Amazon Echo. It recites the news to you (NPR, the Guardian, and Huffington Post only, thank you), as you get dressed, and you tell it to turn on your coffee-maker. You eat breakfast, perusing Facebook at the kitchen table while you wait for your self-driving Uber. Alexa tells you you’re running low on milk and butter, and that a drone will stop by at 6:30 pm with refills. Your phone dings and the driverless taxi is waiting outside. On your short trip to work, you watch that new Netflix show everyone on Facebook keeps talking about, and you’ve immediately fallen in love with. At work, you idly switch between spreadsheets, Twitter, and Slack on your Microsoft HoloLens headset. You’re in a Slack group dedicated to cat GIFs and it’s really helping pass the time until lunch. Eventually, your stomach grumbles and you head to the closest Amazon Go. You check in on your phone, beeping past the turnstiles, pick up the same chicken Caesar salad wrap, Diet Coke, and cupcake you had yesterday. You walk out to an urgent Slack message from your boss, and you run back to complete his request, eating at your desk. Late in the afternoon, as the day drags on, you open Facebook Messenger and talk with chatbots from Travelocity and TripAdvisor about a much-needed vacation to get away from the doldrum. They both suggest, based on your budget and past travel history, a trip to the Grand Canyon. You ask Cortana, the digital assistant built into HoloLens, to change your virtual computer’s desktop image to one of the Grand Canyon. At 5:30pm, Uber pings your phone to tell your ride home is outside. Your children text you to ask what you want for dinner, and as it’s Friday, you decide on pizza. You order from a local store and the shared delivery robot arrives at your front door just as you’re stepping out of the Uber. After dinner, the family watches a 360-degree movie from Pixar, and you head up to bed to watch some more shows on Netflix with the spouse. Eight hours later, the process repeats.

This may well sound like fiction bordering on dystopia, but it’s all technology that’s either being developed or tested right now. Uber, Google, Ford, and myriad other companies are working on autonomous ride-hailing services, with many of them expecting to go into service around 2020. Autonomous drone deliveries and robots that bring you takeout have started delivering to real customers in New Zealand and England. Alexa, the ethereal voice inside Amazon’s Echo smart hubs, can already order you items that you shout out to her, and Amazon is working on its own drone delivery service. Netflix, Facebook, and Alexa’s news briefings all already curate the sorts of content (and outlets) that you have liked in the past. McDonalds is replacing cashiers with touch screens, and there are startups working on automating the production of food.

In the near future, through automation, you could easily leave your home and return that night having potentially only interacted in person with your coworkers. It’s not even that hard to do that today, but it’s going to get a lot easier when there are fewer people required to run stores, ferry people from place to place, or answer the phone for a company. It’s worth considering how much we really need technology to do for us, or what we can really do for ourselves. Chance encounters, thoughts entirely different from our own, spontaneity—they’ll all dwindle as we all become further entrenched in our rote, tech-facilitated life loops.

Hopefully the robot uprising won’t be too far behind.

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