Saturday, July 23, 2016

Automation


Somewhere in a dark research lab in Oak Brook, Illinois, Ronald McDonald is working on further developments in retinal scans, finger-prints, and facial recognition. The latest technology in use at my local McDonald's is just one step away from using this technology.

Recently, I walked into a McDonald's in Calgary, Alberta and was confused about how I should order. There was still one person at a till at the counter, but there were six shiny, new, touch screens where I could place my order as well. I could sort through categories and touch pictures of my favourite burger, drink, and fries, place my order and pay for my meal. It was a surprisingly fast and efficient process. I was given an order number and the factory in the back of the restaurant (still an assembly line of people – for now) put together my order. When it was ready, my order number showed up on a screen above the counter and a smiling host handed me a tray carrying my meal.

I thought about how they could take this process to the next level. A number of mechanisms could be used to identify a person when they walked into the restaurant (thus, the research in Illinois); something as simple as giving each person a unique number and pin with which they could log in to a terminal could work. Then, the device could ask you if you wanted your usual order or something different (most of us are creatures of habit when it comes to fast-food) and streamline the process further. The terminal could be linked to your usual method of payment and instantly your order would be placed. Now that would be “fast-food!”

Of course we might ask some questions about this process. What about the number of employees at the counter? Where will they work if not at McDonald's? Perhaps they will work at the factories producing facial recognition cameras. What about the personal, human, element? How personal is the usual exchange at any till? “Hello, can I take your order? Big Mac, fries, and coke. That will be $X.YY. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

We have asked these types of questions since before Henry Ford started building cars on an assembly line. Those who lamented the loss of personal craftsmanship and the human touch have been labelled “Luddites” for about the same length of time. Yet, those questions are still worth asking. There may be a place for automated systems as well as a place for old-fashioned craftsmanship, customer service, and the personal touch. Perhaps we should think about the industries where each type of service is appropriate: restaurant chains, the health industry, manufacturing, book sales, … Might we slow down long enough to make some informed decisions rather than let technology take the driver’s seat? What kind of society do we truly desire? We need to ask these questions before they are answered for us. For now, I will go back to quietly eating my Big Mac, ignoring everyone around me while I check Facebook on my phone.

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