4 min read

Why supermarket self-checkouts are a dangerous technology

February 4, 2021
Photograph by John Keeble — Getty Images

Technology is a wonderful thing — it has managed to make everything we do faster, easier and more convenient than we ever thought possible. Our lives are being automated before our very eyes. Not just reducing human interaction, but often with the primary intention of eliminating human interaction - think supermarket self-checkouts. Digitisation continues to play into our anti-social tendencies, encouraging even the most extrovert among us to favour a chatbot over a chat.

It is because of technology that many of us can go days without a single human interaction. It has helped us to shop, order dinner, manage money and hail taxis without so much as needing to utter a single “hello”. Every new tech development occupying the media — from AI and robots to connected devices and self-driving cars — seems to be forcing us further down the rabbit hole where we will inevitably land face-down on our screens.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive. But mechanisation has important implications for the future of work. We need to set clear boundaries for ourselves and be mindful of not letting innovations develop to a point where they eclipse the need we humans crave the most — that is, connecting with each other. Something we rely on, not least when we’re at work. Humans are inherently social beings, and we mustn't forget to serve that need when innovating.

What does this mean for the future of work?

The workplace has become an increasingly collaborative one. No matter what industry or job role you’re in, it’s highly likely that you are an integral part of a team. And chances are, you might not get along with every coworker. Fostering healthy team dynamics can often fall low down the priority list for companies, however, to be successful in the contemporary workplace requires effective collaboration between team members. Whether you like it or not, we still rely enormously on having strong relationships with the people we work with. Robots might replace tasks, but they won’t replace people.

How can we use AI to promote important conversations between team members?

We recently launched CoachBot, our own AI powered bot which digitises the coaching experience for teams. It's primary aim is to provide a cost effective and scalable leadership development solution for entry level and mid level managers. Since its inception and subsequent development, we always knew what we didn’t want to build: a bot which served to eliminate human interaction. In fact, we wanted to develop a product which did the very opposite.

The aim of artificial intelligence and chatbots in HR then is a simple one: it should provide assistance and guide us in developing productive relationships without taking away the real interaction. In other words, a chatbot shouldn’t hook a team into spending hours engaging with a conversational user interface preventing them from making eye contact with each other. Because after all, that would be counterproductive to our basic needs as human beings as well as to our productivity at work.

Instead, we must focus on developing AI chatbots that help us communicate better and strengthen our relationships with our team members offline. For instance, bots could collect data and prepare reports that prompt intelligent questions of the team. Acting as a mediator, the chatbot should cut through the complexity and provide guidance on where the team should focus their development efforts. Chatbots should then tee up interesting and valuable conversation points providing a base of conversation for team members to connect and bond over. The actual conversation, however, should take place far away from the screen, truly empowering the relationship between people.

After all, the sole purpose of a chatbot should be to provide valuable assistance increasing human interaction instead of reducing it. Our communication with the bot then should be limited, to short, punchy and precise interactions.

AI ought to trigger discussions, and these still need to happen between people. We get that. We also know that discussing team dynamics and reflecting on how we work improves the overall job performance, so we believe there’s a role for a bot to stimulate and inform that discussion and reflection. While there is no universally agreed upon level of bot engagement versus team discussion, there are a number of ideas. For example, it could be for every one minute you engage with the bot, it triggers ten more minutes of thoughtful team discussion.

We can use AI to better understand the dynamics within our teams, learn individual habits and behaviours, and then offer content curated for any challenges faced within the team. That’s indeed valuable assistance that more people need to take advantage of. In fact, according to our research many managers and team leaders would appreciate the ability to understand team dynamics better, but do not know where to start; they are constrained by not having done the research themselves and not having time to do it. The bad news is that this creates a vicious cycle, the good news is that this can be broken through the use of AI-driven chatbots, continually nudging teams to engage with one another. We want to trigger substantive discussions, but these still need to happen between people.

Getting day-to-day work done effectively isn’t like cashing a cheque — when you want to pay money into your bank, you could probably do without the hassle of waiting in line to speak to a person. But in workplaces that are becoming increasingly collaborative, we need to be proactive and foster strong relationships with our team mates. Helthy and productive relationships are not just ‘nice-to-have’, they are proven to be fundamental to generating high performance, improving productivity and fostering employee wellbeing.

The way that bots and AI will interact with our life is still in the early stages of development, but what we do know is that AI can help us collaborate smarter. We therefore need to change the conversation from ‘humans need to understand machines’ to ‘machines need to understand humans’.

AI can guide us in developing better, more meaningful relationships with those around us in a way that’s quick, convenient and intuitive. We might not always admit it, but our need for a true connection is more powerful than our need for convenience — and chatbots should definitely help with that.

Find out more about Saberr at www.saberr.com

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