Why self-checkout machines could be the beginning of the end

As published in the University of Melbourne’s student magazine, Farrago.

“Please place your item in the bagging area.” The voice is monotonic, passive-aggressive.

“Okay, okay,” the woman snaps. She places the milk carton into the bag and struggles to keep it standing upright amongst the oranges and cans of baked beans. A curly-haired baby shrieks from under her arm.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area.” The voice is cold. Unforgiving.

“It’s just milk!” the woman shrieks.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area. Remove this item before continuing.”

The woman grabs the bag. The cheap plastic rips from its hold, oranges fall to the ground, rolling away.

The voice is oblivious. Of course it is – it can’t see. It doesn’t have a face.

“Please wait for assistance.”

* * * * *

As technology becomes an intrinsic part of our 21st century lives, interactions between humans and machines in the Western world are nothing less than ordinary. Think about it: when do you not use a machine? You use one to wash your clothes or dishes, to get to your workplace or university, and most likely to do your work, with laptops, smartphones and tablets becoming – mind the pun – virtually unavoidable. By the looks of things, machines and technology are here to stay.

But what about the machines that take over human jobs? More than 500,000 self-checkout machines operate worldwide: assisted checkout machines at the supermarket, do-it-yourself registers at the cinema, printing your own ticket at the airport, even global fast food chain McDonalds is introducing self-order kiosks to its stores. Driverless cars are quickly becoming another real possibility, threatening the employment of thousands of truck drivers and couriers globally Technology advisory firm Gartner has warned that that between software, machines and robots, a third of all human jobs will be replaced by 2025.

The speedy evolution of machines begs the question: is the introduction of this technology into our human societies a natural progression, or something much more dangerous? Countless Hollywood-esque productions have denoted the rise of the machine as a serious threat to human civilizations. Science fiction films such as I, Robot and The Terminator have implied that, with the growing intelligence of machines, humanity as we know it is in danger.



Interestingly, the use of machines has already had an effect on the current job market, at a time when unemployment rates in Australia are of major concern. Australia Post recently slashed thousands of jobs – arguably as a result of the rise of e-mail and online communication, whilst the decline of newspapers is similarly of serious concern for the print media industry, with 2013 figures showing that both Fairfax and News Corp are in decline. Machines are even effecting Victorian schools, as the standardized NAPLAN test is expected to be marked by computers – not teachers – in 2017.

Statistically, the rise of the self-checkout comes with Australia’s worst unemployment rates of young people since 1998. One in five 15-19 year olds are unemployed – the same age range that is commonly hired by the likes of supermarkets, cinemas and department stores. Billie*, 20, says the use of machines in supermarkets is already influencing the employment of young people. An employee at one of the major supermarket chains, Billie is about to quit. “I recently chatted with my supervisor about getting more hours and she said that one or two shifts a week was all I could get, because of the self-checkouts. It’s really not much when you’re paying rent.”

Supermarket giant Woolworths have continued to assert themselves as a key employer of young people, with their latest advertising campaigns claiming that “87 young Australians spend their first day of work at Woolworths” every day. But Billie believes unemployment is only the beginning of the problem. “Working at the checkout at the same time every week, I would have relationships with customers. They would come in and know my name, we’d have a chat about things, how our weeks had been… one lady even bought me flowers when I passed my year 12 exams! I just can’t see that functioning when people are scanning their own groceries.”


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Supermarkets are not the first industry to trade in customer interaction for the efficiency of technology. The introduction of ATMs instead of bank tellers, and the loss of tram conductors for ticket machines are two of many such instances where machines have significantly decreased human interaction but improved profit margins.

So are reservations surrounding new forms of technology simply a fear of the unknown? The introduction of television to our homes, after all, was forecast to be threatening to the unity of the family. Needless to say, the TV has become a central unit to family bonding time today. Moreover, the speed and efficiency of self-serve registers could also be seen as assisting the working class. Just as household technologies like sewing machines, washing machines and dishwashers were commended as assisting the end of women’s oppression in the home, self-checkouts and scanners may improve the conditions of workers, especially young people.

But Billie, also an undergraduate student majoring in sociology, isn’t so sure. “More machines would just create a new generation of proletariat – the people who make and service the machines.”

James, 25, works an average of five days a week at one of the busiest supermarkets in Melbourne’s CBD in eight-hour shifts: a “wonderful job”, he smiles sarcastically. “I’m pro self-checkout, and not just because it limits the number of dickheads I have to speak to.” He goes on to say that self-checkout machines “…arguably provide [employees] with better pay… if there were more of us on [the registers], our corporate overlords can’t, or most likely wouldn’t, pay a decent wage for that many people.”

Clearly, we have the technology to substantially increase the use of machinery in human societies. Technology and machinery continues to develop at an unprecedented rate; Apple releases a new gadget almost every six months, Google is composing driverless cars, supermarkets around the world have endorsed self-checkout machines as a new alternative to the employment of people. As both James and Billie indicate, as long as customers continue using the self-checkout machines – and most people do – their advance is almost unstoppable.

The rise of machines comes with some serious questions. The ethics associated with machinery, especially those machines that take over human jobs, must be seriously debated – before it’s too late.

*Names have been changed.

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