The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Technology
It all started with ATMs. Automated Teller Machines that dispersed cash and occasionally chewed up our bank cards. ATMs started talking, saying ‘Please enter your pin number’ and ‘Thank you.’ They were polite. They saved time. They made sense.
Then came chip and pin cards, no need for cash, you just had to remember your pin number and ‘Remove your card’ when told to. Then came contactless cards – no need for pin numbers, you just had to tap your card on a machine. Next will no doubt be the mass migration to Apple Pay and so on.
Although it’s a hi-tech hub, Israel is a little behind on these banking developments – people mostly use credit cards and scribble meaningless signatures on pieces of paper. Yet since I made Aliyah and moved to Israel from London ten years ago, the UK has morphed into a kind of ‘contactless country’. Drinkers in pubs, shoppers in M&S (Marks & Spencer’s) and commuters on the London Underground are all tapping their contactless cards, each tap deducting money from their accounts as if nothing had happened. It’s a ‘transactionless’ transaction, if you like. No money exchanged. No handshakes. And definitely no eye-contact please, we’re British.
The contactless society is all about saving time, not cash. And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing it seems on the surface. Except the niggling feeling underneath that we, as humans, may be drawing closer to becoming robotic, contactless creatures.
Now this may sound a little dramatic – humans (especially those in Israel like myself) have a tendency to be over-emotional sometimes – but let’s look at how the consumerist world is changing.
Check-in & Check-out Machines
Step inside any supermarket in England and you’ll find a cluster of self-checkout machines, often ‘manned’ by one or two people. These self-checkout machines (which are slowly being introduced in Israel) are quicker than waiting for a shop assistant, we often don’t need to say hello to anyone. Shoppers simply pay and go on with their contactless lives.
Airports in London now have queue-saving self-check-in stands, where passengers weigh their own luggage, print their own sticker and send their bag through on the conveyer belt towards security. Is this contactless travel?
Fast food restaurants like McDonalds now offer the ‘McTouch’ way of ordering meals. Customers simply touch the screen to ‘build their burger’ and wait for their order to appear on the screen. Contactless cuisine, anyone?
And finally, there’s the much-hyped development of driverless cars. Yes, the autonomous automobile is coming in the next five years or so, they say. Perhaps our children will laugh that we once actually steered the wheel of a car. What idiots we were, they’ll say. What brainless baboons!
Yet, call me a luddite or a technophobe, but something inside me feels uneasy with all this contactless AI (artificial intelligence). Allow me to share a recent experience.
The Human Touch
Recently my father was diagnosed with Burkett’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer in his stomach. After the diagnosis, my parents and I went for lunch at a not-so-fancy Nando’s restaurant in Cambridge. When we arrived, a young, bearded waiter (presumably a student) greeted us and asked where we’d like to sit. He asked us, ‘What’s the occasion?’ My mother answered honestly. The waiter said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ and showed us to our table. At the end of the meal I wanted to tip the waiter but he refused to accept my money. He just said, ‘Buy your Mum a coffee,’ then looked at my mum and said, ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’ This may sound like a small gesture but it meant the world to us. For a brief moment the waiter, a stranger, empathised with us, as only humans can do. A robotic AI waiter, even if programmed to empathise, wouldn’t have had the same effect.
And this is the main point – if we create a future without the need for human shopkeepers, waiters, drivers and even doctors, then we will lose something fundamental – the human touch.
Don’t get me wrong – not all AI technology is harmful. But it is becoming increasingly important to decipher the beneficial ‘responsible technology’ from the potentially harmful ‘irresponsible technology’. Huge leaps have been made in medicine and green technologies such as hybrid cars. On the other hand, we’re also racing at full speed towards harmful technologies that could eliminate millions of jobs and alienate us further from each other. In the wrong hands, deadly technologies such as military drones and other examples of robotic warfare, could cause unimaginable damage.
The Industrial Age-Old Argument
Today the retail business is facing a genuine crisis. Small independent shops cannot compete with giants like Amazon and Walmart. Although it started life as an online book store, Amazon in Europe now delivers groceries and anything else you can think of. It’s a modern form of monopolization – killing competition and homogenizing culture.
Now when you talk to certain people about the ‘tech revolution’ they’ll say that it’s part of our evolution and that people had the same warnings before the industrial revolution. Others will say it’s progress and letting technology do all the mundane work means humans have more free time. But what will most people do with this free time?
We’re living in virtual reality if we think everyone is suddenly going to become intellectual or ‘enlightened’ and start reading books or going for walks in the forest. Unfortunately, trends show that more and more free time of people, especially young millennials, is spent on their devices – checking each other out on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp or whatever social media comes next. In Israel, as in many other countries, teenagers are spending hours on end playing games like Fornite, which ironically is about saving humanity.
The danger of addictive virtual reality games and devices, is that we as humans will become increasingly disconnected from each other and the natural or ‘real’ world.
Hi Tech, Low Morals?
So where does Israel come into all this? Israel is considered one of the most technological advanced nations today. The hi-tech industry is the pride of Israel’s investors and politicians. No doubt much of this artificial intelligence will come from Israeli companies, for example MobileEye that was acquired by Intel for $15BN. Last week saw the arrival of AWE – the world’s biggest augmented reality conference in Tel Aviv. Artificial intelligence and automations are major trends in tech at present. But are these private companies considering the long-term consequences of AI or just looking to make a quick buck?
There’s no doubt hi-tech has been good for Israel – it provides employment, advanced medical facilities and not to mention the world-famous Iron Dome missile defense system that has saved thousands of lives. But in reality, a large proportion of Israel’s hi-tech industry has also been in dubious domains such as online gambling, porn, forex and malware. Not exactly a light unto the nations.
The next tech target is children. There’s talk of schools collaborating with the cyber industry and introducing tablets into the classroom to prepare them as ‘digital citizens’. Some Knesset members, mentioning no names, (Naftali Bennet), are keen to introduce more technology into schools. Global arms company Lockheed Martin, who build fighter jets, are now funding pre-schools in Jerusalem with the intent of teaching children about technology and science at an earlier age.
But Israelis are not easily fooled. Some parents question the intent of private companies who want to enter the classroom and are battling to keep children away from intrusive technology. Alternative education such as anthroposophical kindergartens and schools – where the human spirit, traditional development of senses and working with hands are at the core – are growing in popularity in Israel, almost becoming mainstream.
Elsewhere, there are signs that Israelis are acutely aware of the dangers of the sensory overload of technology. In Tel Aviv more and more people practice mindfulness, yoga and meditation. Tech companies like Google and Wix even offer meditation sessions to their employees. And the Tel Aviv municipality even ran a billboard advertising campaign encouraging pedestrians to take a ‘screen break’.
Only time will tell if we, as a society, manage to put in the necessary ‘checks and balances’ to reduce harmful impacts and encourage responsible technology. Though we can’t halt the march of technology, then at least we could nudge it in the right direction. After all, we’re not robots.