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An article I wrote on automation and its relationship to humans within society for Viewpoint magazine:


Technology, in its multifaceted guises, is an inherent enabler of human potential and we’ve now seen blanket acceptance with supermarket self-checkouts and GPS smartphones guiding people as they walk blindly through the urban sprawl. But automation – the use of one or more computers to control basic functions automatically, and sometimes remotely – is seeping into our lives at a rapid pace despite it being in an embryonic phase.

Panelists at c|net’s CES 2012 in Las Vegas predicted that soon every home device, from TVs to fridges, will be networked and they might well also be Android-powered. A recent Dezeen post spoke of virtual and physical realms colliding, ‘information technology is creeping into everyday objects, turning them into devices and apps that monitor our behaviour and communicate with each other’. As technology becomes both ubiquitous and accessible, the smart-tech revolution unfurls its tentacles towards electronics. And there is much more to come from the world of automation. The rise of smartphones and WiFi networks brought products to consumer attention along with increasing justification for them on devices and in homes. But the question on everyone’s lips is ‘how likely is automation to permeate and, or negate, the human experience’? Intel vice president Ton Steenman has said that a shift in consumer expectation will see “much more interactivity with embedded devices.”

Paying for products is already effortless, thanks to Near Field Communication (NFC). A common feature on smartphones such as the new Sony Xperia Sola, NFC enables communication between devices and contactless cards. A simple swipe at the payment terminal, after being prompted to enter your password or PIN, makes the item yours – no queues, no fuss. The Xperia also has SmartTag capability, enabling users with a tag at their desk to swipe their phone across, automatically changing the phone profile to silent while at work. Such advances had Swedish analyst firm Berg Insight remarking that global sales of handsets that featured NFC technology had increased tenfold in 2011.

Automation is certainly proliferating in terms of mass-market interest in the home – according to Pike Research; sales for smart home devices are likely to achieve greater growth by 2013. The recent CES tech fair in Vegas saw the launch of the LG Smart Manager fridge. So ‘smart’ it monitors contents and automatically adds food to your online account when stocks are low. It suggests recipes based on leftover ingredients, switches the oven to the correct temperature and sets a timer without any input whatsoever before an LCD screen on the door offers tips on cooking up Michelin-worthy dishes.

Every home could also soon come equipped with The Nest thermostat, an intuitive home-heating and cooling device that studies its owner’s habits and regulates temperature accordingly. It can be connected to the home WiFi and monitored, or controlled through a smart device such as a phone or tablet. To follow, Samsung is introducing a smart, WiFi-enabled, washing machine that can be controlled from inside or outside your home.

Outside the home, vehicular automation uses mechatronics and artificial intelligence to assist in vehicle control; meaning less responsibility is required during routine driving manoeuvres. Semi-autonomous cars benefit from adaptive cruise control, impending collision notification and traffic-sign recognition but technology has progressed in such a way that cars can now park themselves. Not only can automation reduce congestion, predict a crash in nanoseconds and enable radical redesigning which make vehicles more fuel-efficient, now car tech exponents seem to be on a mission (or automation) creep with less necessary features taking a front seat.

Ford’s 2013 Escape (available this autumn) boasts hands-free parallel parking, though a light touch to the brake may be required when cars pass, and if you have your hands full but require the rear door open then a wave of your foot under the bumper unlatches it. All this renders the image of dad tinkering under the car bonnet on a pleasant Sunday afternoon obsolete – an enduring vision of maleness now fallen by the wayside. A greater concern is its crushing effect on the manufacturing industry, with manual labourers replaced by robots or other automated machineries resulting in mass layoffs. But Nady Boules, director of GM’s Electrical and Controls Integration Lab, sees the lampooning of autonomous driving as untenable with fully automated vehicles available in the marketplace by decade end. “Some say ‘over my dead body’ [you can] take the control from me,” he says “but our intention is not to take autonomy from the driver, but to give the driver the option to either drive himself, or give the control to the vehicle.”

Will we then turn into a generation that is too reliant on technology? People can always chose to opt out. Or there could be a backlash, as seen with the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, ironically borne out of a reaction against automation. Such wariness cannot be ignored, in an age where devices are so attuned to our needs that we’ve become unquestionably dependant on them we might see a shift towards the idea of tech-enabling humans becoming autonomous and individual in their own right. Bethany Koby, co-founder of Technology Will Save Us, promotes this radical shift. Her organisation saw consumers realising their potential as innovators ­– pre–skilling them in modern tech; “to fix them or create new ways to use them,” – in order to see which new services and products they can create together. “We teach Arduino, a micro-controller platform that gives people the capacity to make bespoke technology, with their own aesthetic,” she says. “As in the future there will be a backlash where people will want to modify these devices and their functions.”

In a time-poor, fast-paced society there seems to be a greater call for automation to lift the burden of our domestic chores. According to research conducted by Churchill Insurance, almost a third (31%) of the UK population employ domestic help because they don’t have time to for the specific tasks themselves, the figure rises to nearly half (48%) for those aged 18-34. If high numbers suggest anything it’s that we live in an age where time-saving intelligence devices could free up some of that precious time in order to create a better work-life balance. “Up to this point technology has been about convenience,’’ explains Max Reyner, head of insight at brand agency Protein, “but there is potential for it to learn from our habits, and take the idea of ‘smart’ a step further.”

But allowing increased automation into our daily lives will come with its own set of consequences. Academic Donald A. Norman, consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group and an advocate of user-centred design outlined the failings of automation in a simple sentence, ‘we do not know enough to mimic natural human interaction’. So perhaps an exploration of what it is to be human during the smart tech revolution is required to see the bigger picture. Is there something in the way people think and feel that connects to how we experience automation?

Lisa Blackman, a senior lecturer in Communications at Goldsmiths University says that technology ‘enables and constrains us in different ways.’ While it allows us to re-imagine our potential – particularly with a younger generation where its an inherent extension of self; “swiping an iPad touchscreen, for example, is just second nature,” says Blackman – for many automation anxiety is akin to the fear of industrialisation, some even view it as a kind of fantastical possession. “The idea that something can direct you beyond your control is a fantasy,” she says.

Yet for the older generation, as seen in an acceptance of the now standard supermarket self-checkout, automation in its ubiquity can be an enabling, educational tool – or as Blackman says, “it may just cause our skills to be repositioned”. Philippa Wagner, from trend-forecasting consultancy Philippa Wagner Consultancy, agrees. “I think we’re inherently human”, she says, “we’ve had robot Hoovers for decades now but they’ve never taken off because they can’t perform as well without a human.” This inherent human touch is clearly the only real obstacle for automation to overcome if we are to live in a sci-fi age of self-driving cars and robot machines, as mirrored in a vision of the future by Race Against the Machine co-author, Erik Brynjolfsson“the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines… but to compete with machines”.

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