Amazon’s supermarket of the future will also sell us loneliness
Amazon Go is the tech giant’s experiment in creating a future supermarket using computer vision, AI and sensors to track what visitors purchase, doing away not only with cashiers but human staff entirely. Automated checkouts are already reducing the number of staff in traditional stores but Amazon’s idea will wipe out any contact with another human being entirely.
The reaction to Amazon unveiling the pilot was split between overexcitement and cautionary notes about the huge number of people who will be looking for work if the store concept takes over the industry. But there’s another aspect of this entirely automated service industry future – another source of loneliness.
A growing body of research has explored the damage loneliness and social isolation can do to our health. One from 2015 by Holt and Lunstad even suggested that it could be equivalent to the effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In the western world with its ageing populations and growing number of people who work at home, loneliness is going to become an increasingly acute problem.
The rush by technology firms to replace humans with automation ignores the secondary role that the service industries play as a source of human contact. Amazon’s vision of the future is one where, if you don’t get your groceries delivered by drone after pressing a button, you’ll wander around a store ignored by the rest of the shoppers.
Of course, it makes sense for tech companies to get rid of the unreliable, high cost and difficult to upgrade components of their systems but it’s unfortunate for us that we are those components. A world of automated stores is a bleak one. The push for efficiency will bring with it an ever increasing loss of human interaction.
If we don’t want to see huge numbers of people become even more isolated and lonely, we need to design the cities and services of the future to value human interaction. We don’t have to acquiesce to the vision presented to us by Silicon Valley. If we decide to follow the route of convenience alone, we will end up living in a much sadder world.