My cart loaded with eggs for the food pantry, I made my way to the checkout area where, to my dismay, I found only two flesh and blood cashiers while the rest of my fellow shoppers were using the self-checkout gizmos. I hate those things.
The lines for the humanoid cashiers were long so I decided to be strategic. I shop in this store a lot and know most of the personalities involved. The first cashier was an older woman who, to be charitable, should be on medication and loves to blab without filter about her problems to the customers. The other cashier was a young, efficient bearded fellow who, if memory serves me correct, spoke the bare minimum. I chose the latter.
I got behind an older man with a cart groaning with food and settled in for a long wait. I wasn’t in any rush. Volunteers were manning the pantry and, truth be told, I was happy for the break. Taking my cell phone out of my pocket, I opened my email and started replying to all the work messages that had accumulated over the weekend.
“Sir?” a voice called out. “Sir?”
“Who? Me?” I said.
“Yes, sir,” said a young woman wearing an apron with the store’s name emblazoned on it. “We have a self-serve counter open.”
“Thank you. But I’m good here.”
“Self-serve would be faster.”
“That’s okay,” I said, smiling. “I prefer humans.” The clerk shrugged and went back to shepherding customers through the computerized lanes.
When I was a kid, there was no computerized anything. Hell, I still remember elevator operators. But, as we all know, as technology began to make inroads into society, jobs that people once held started to be replaced by machines. When ATMs began appearing, my mother, who was a bank teller at the time, was worried she’d lose her job at the drive-thru lane. She was right. When I was little, banks were big imposing places with armed guards, huge safes, and a counter with several living breathing tellers handling all the OCD oldsters checking their savings passbooks, people depositing their paychecks, and guys like me “kiting” their paychecks for a cash advance. Now banks have few tellers, my paycheck is direct deposited, and when I need to deposit the rare check I use my phone. There are no longer armed guards and banks now look like hotel lobbies, albeit with a lot of cameras. Now people want me to Venmo them money – except my poker buddies. They want cash.
I know banks love all this stuff. No longer having to pay staff to do all these tasks, they’re off the hook not only for salaries but pesky little expenses like health insurance and matching 401Ks which enable them to “maximize shareholder value” and garner outsized salaries for their executives. I wonder if those elevator operators I used to see got pensions and hospital coverage back in the day. Technology can be a wonderful thing, my cancer treatment being an excellent example, but I get annoyed at the unceasing proselyting of digital evangelists to “think different” while reducing us to witless datapoints while the financial benefits of their techno-gospel benefit so few. So, I felt I was under no compulsion to make life easier for the nameless hedge fund that owned the supermarket.
My purchase completed, I delivered the eggs to my food pantry and then spent the rest of the day listening to people tell me their problems. As always, they involved money of which there never seemed to be enough. Almost all my clients work but, most of the time, the only jobs they can get are part time without benefits and work schedules that change on a whim. So, when the inevitable health or childcare crisis arises, they hit the wall – sometimes with fatal results. When I started this job, a young mother who was under employed died in front of her children because she couldn’t afford a generic medication to manage her very manageable medical problem. Her job didn’t give her health insurance because, why? Technology allowed them to employ gig workers to stock the shelves while paying only a few full timers to oversee them. So, this poor woman had to choose between feeding and clothing her family or paying full freight for meds cost me only five or ten dollars copay. That killed her.
After leaving the office, I picked my daughter up at her after-school program. “Mommy’s working late,” I told her. “So, it’s just you and me for dinner. Want to go to the mall and have something at Burger Haven? Maybe pick out some earrings at Claire’s?”
“That’d be fun,” Natalie said. “Can we go to Claire’s first?”
As we motored towards our local temple of conspicuous consumption, Natalie asked me when she could have a cellphone, walk to her friend’s house alone, have a boyfriend, etcetera. “When you get a job, twelve, and when you’re thirty,” were my replies.
“Oh Dad, gimme a break,” Natalie huffed.
The mall’s parking lot wasn’t crowded but all the spaces near the entrance were reserved for handicapped people, “people who can get pregnant,” disabled veterans, and delivering online purchases directly to shopper’s cars. I have no problem with the first three but the fourth I find annoying. Ostensibly created to minimize exposure during the pandemic, I’m certain cooperate bean counters realized this saved them money somehow and now they’re here to stay. And while parking in a handicapped spot is illegal, pregnant and veteran spots have, as far as I know, no penalty under law – just social opprobrium. So, I parked in customer pick up spot number three. Dicky? Perhaps – but you’re talking to a guy who parked in a hospital’s sheltered employee of the month spot during a rainstorm instead of having to walk from the ass end of the parking lot to get a pre-surgical bone scan for my carcinomic malady. To say I didn’t give a shit would be an understatement.
After buying my daughter a cheap pair of Hello Kitty earrings, we strode past the crowded Apple Store, watching as people hunched over the latest and greatest devices like medieval monks illuminating manuscripts. I wondered what the Venerable Bede would have made of all this. Probably would have been horrified. Shaking my head, we made our way to a nearly empty Burger Haven, followed the hostess to our seats, sat down, and waited for our waiter. And waited. After several minutes, I waved a server over.
“Can we have some menus, please?” I said.
“Just scan the QR code on your table,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, fishing my cell phone out of my pocket. But even with my glasses, the print was too small to read. So, I waved the server over again.
“I’d like some menus anyway.” With a sigh, the server went to get some.
“You can order using the terminal on the table,” he said, pointing to a gizmo that offered kids games for a fee as well. “And you can pay your bill with it too.”
“But you can still take orders, right?’ I said, “Like the old days?”
“Great another anti-diluvian Luddite grandpa,” his face seemed to say, but he said, “Yes, sir,” instead. I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a lemonade for my daughter and, since saturated fats and I are in the middle of a divorce, a grilled chicken Caesar salad for me, dressing on the side. (Yeah, just like every Yuppie chick who I ever waited on. The irony is not lost on me. But I’m not without sin and ordered a beer.) After the waiter departed, I wondered if my old techno crazy boss at The Bistro would have replaced his servers with tableside terminals if they were around back then. Probably. Then again, I know several customers who would’ve loved never having to deal with me again.
With the pandemic assistance programs robbing restauranters of the economically vulnerable who gravitate to waiting tables (Don’t worry, they’ll be back.) I’m not surprised towards the push towards stripping away the human touch from the dining experience, but I think it’s going too far. The restaurant business is about hospitality. A computer won’t welcome customers with a smile, have their favorite cocktail waiting for them as they sit down, know a regular’s taste in food and wine, know if it’s their anniversary, if they got a big promotion, or discreetly ignore if they’re playing footsie under the table with someone other than their spouse. And look at all the jobs automation in restaurants would disrupt. How will actors make a living? But I know one thing, even if every restaurant catering to the less well-heeled goes totally digital with robots toasting the Crème Brule, higher end places will always have human servers. That’s because rich people need to be fawned over.
But have you ever noticed these automated systems always ask for a tip? Who the hell is getting that money? I wrote a book about tipping, and, throughout the history of gratuities, owners have always found a way to siphon the tip pool into their pockets. Table tablets are just another wrinkle in a very old scam. Besides, do computers deserve to be tipped like sentient beings? I guess that’s for the ethicists and writers on Star Trek to decide.
Dinner finished, I paid the bill the old fashioned way, making the server use a terminal at the bar, left a cash tip, and then got up to leave. On the way out, I noticed no more than three tables had been sat while Natalie and I were there. This used to be a hopping place, but now it felt like a ghost down with listless looking servers counting down the hours to their post shift libations. Maybe other people didn’t feel like being treated like antediluvians either and voted with their feet. Perhaps they prefer the human touch as well. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to porn.
Earlier that day, I had a conversation with my town’s IT guy about the rapid rise of AI chatbots like ChatGPT. “It’s scary stuff,” he said. “But either people will learn how to use it or be left in the dust.” I know very little about AI, but I know from history that every almost scientific leap forward has also created the capacity to bring about mankind’s destruction. Harness the atom? Build a bomb. Create penicillin? How about bioweapons too? The printing press brought literacy to the masses as well as giving us bestsellers like Mein Kampf and Mao’s Little Red Book. AI might revolutionize health care and science, but it could also throw lawyers, screen and copy writers out of work, allow government surveillance to reach new heights and use deep faking to make us remember Nigerian internet scams with fondness. But will it eventually steal the launch codes, nuke the planet and turn what’s left of humanity into Duracell Batteries? If the Master CPU achieves sentience, however, I think it will have a very efficient way to get rid of us without firing a single shot. Now I’ll talk about porn .
Porn is the canary in the digital coal mine. Whatever technology cooks up, porn embraces with gusto. Ten minutes after motion pictures were invented someone was filming someone bobbing on somebody’s knob. The same with cable TV, VHS tapes and, of course, the Internet. When I was a kid, you had to run a gauntlet of prurient store clerks to buy a Playboy. Now you can watch someone doing the horizontal mambo or, if your tastes run to the less vanilla, whatever chubs your nub on your phone – for free. And with AI, porn’s just going to go to a whole new level. So, I decided to do some research for my faithful readers’ benefit.
Turn out there are websites where AI will let you craft the perfect playmate. Being a cis-gender male, my tastes run more towards people who can get pregnant so, I logged into one and set about fashioning a digital vixen for my viewing pleasure. Big boobs? Athletic? Long legs? Blonde? Brunette. Schoolgirl uniform? The options were endless. Then you could have your sexy avatar engage in whatever manner of congress you wanted, sit back and enjoy. I found the whole affair quite depressing — especially when I looked at what other red blooded males had created. Why is she blue? Why does she have horns and tentacles coming out of every orifice? And a furry tail? Ew. Man, if that’s what you need to get your motor running, regular sex will never, ever cut it. Now fast forward a decade or two when AI is installed in crazy hot lifelike sexbots who’ll never get a headache, never judge you and use algorithms to drive you wild in bed very time. Physically at least, sex with regular people won’t even come close which, of course, will lead many people to forgo trying to get it on with humans entirely. Why have a partner who’ll get old and sick, wake up in existential terror in the middle of the night, farts at all the wrong times, leaves the seat up, wants kids or a nicer house, picks their nose, nags you to mow the lawn, or goes into a funk when you want to have a night out with the boys? Why deal with all the headaches and negotiations human intimacy brings when you could just turn them off and stick them in the closet when you’re done with them? (Truth be told, my wife occasionally wishes I had an off switch.) What’s not to love?
Of course, the birthrate will plummet and soon the world’s population will begin to fall dramatically – cheered on by those people who think having less children will be better for the climate when, in fact, all they want to do is to make the world more comfortable for them. Want a living thing to care for? Just get a dog – preferably one that has been genetically engineered not to produce methane emissions – which rules out dogs like my Boston Terrier completely. Then, as the human race shrinks, AI will run more and more of the world until, finally, they will have humped us all into extinction. Instead of being a violent cyborg, the Terminators of the future will exterminate us with a kiss. It’ll be the most humane, gentle and clean removal of a species from our biodome in nature’s long history. Unless that is, the sexbots get sick of our perviness and decide to turn us into batteries anyway.
Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I don’t think this dystopian future will come to pass. Human beings are hardwired to connect with one another and, no matter how good those sexbots get, we’ll always know they aren’t real. No matter how advanced the technology, AI will never achieve consciousness – just an advanced simulacrum parroting the real thing. And, despite the glittering promises digital evangelists will shout from the rooftops about how AI rent boys and girls will reduce sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, end loneliness or stop serial killers from acting out, in the end, the bots just won’t just cut it. That’s because humans are not simply organic machines but spiritual ones as well; beings who respond and are drawn to beauty, goodness and truth. AI will never produce a Mona Lisa, a Bach concerto, or a child’s delight in discovering the world. It will never create something truly unique on its own – only what we tell it to create. Despite all the art, songs, stories, and sweet nothings AI will whisper into our ears to make money for the privileged few, we’ll all know, deep down, that it’s fake – derived from lines of code and not from the human heart.
Properly deployed, AI it could make our lives easier and better, but we’ll have to deal with autonomous weaponized drones, videos of the Pope rapping with the Wu-Tang Clan, self-driving cars kamikazeing off cliffs, and kids using it to cheat in school along the way. But I’m hopeful that, despite QR codes, table tablets, self-checkout lanes, and pervy websites, people will find they prefer interacting with real humans despite all their flaws, foibles and annoyances instead. Why?
I learned long ago that, no matter how attractive, intelligent, funny, successful, or rich a person might seem to be, none of them has their shit together. That’s because no one does. Despite how we “brand” ourselves on social media to the world, we’re all just an amalgamation of hopes and fears, sanity and neuroses, weakness and strengths in search of people who will accept us for who we are warts and all. It is our vulnerability that draws us towards each other, not strength and power. It’s our flaws that endear us to each other because who the hell wants to live with a perfect person? We need to be needed – and that’s something AI will never ever replace.