Machines: Good Servants, Bad Masters

Posted On: 7/15/2017

  • Printer Friendly Version
  • Decrease Text SizeIncrease Text Size
  • PDF

TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay

Alicia Lavay, vending, Vending Times

There has been talk about how technology is changing the future, and this has been great news for our industries (perhaps especially micromarkets), but somehow I feel that an important human element has been overlooked. How do we bring a personal touch to the on-demand services that are creating the economy of the future?

In today's market, machines have replaced once-human tasks; and often, when there is human work available, temporary jobs have become commonplace. In many businesses, especially in big cities, companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees. This has become known as the "gig economy" and it has the potential to undermine the traditional marketplace of full-time workers who rarely change employers, but focus on lifetime careers.

Due to the large numbers of people willing to work part-time in temporary positions, the result of a gig economy is cheaper, more convenient services (such as Uber) for those willing to use them. While not all employers have seen the need to outsource everything they do, the gig economy trend often makes it harder for full-time employees to develop in their careers, since the temporary ones usually are cheaper and can be chosen for a particular set of skills. They're available when needed, and they need not be kept busy when the need passes. On the other hand, they have little occasion to develop loyalty. Many employees enjoy the freedom of working when they need the money, then taking some time off to spend it. Of course, independent contractors lack many of the protections and benefits of their full-time colleagues. And those who don't use the Internet tend to be left behind in the gig economy.

This can have positive and negative implications for business owners and jobseekers alike. I have become frustrated when my long-time advertising agency or supplier representative leaves his or her post after we have established close rapport. This seems to be a common occurrence, but yet as a business owner, I am guilty of the same thing when it comes to evaluating certain administrative positions. On the positive side, I understand the importance of creating efficiencies and realize that job creation is not what businesses are designed to do. Jobs satisfy a need, but they are a cost of doing business, and there is steady pressure on a business to create as few as possible.

So a shift to retaining workers as needed for the job sounds like a winning formula for the business owner and the employee who wants flexibility, right? Perhaps, but I still think there is a fine balance.

The economic potential of machines that can perform human tasks is staggering. Experts estimate that driverless cars alone might be worth trillions, but just as the benefits are real, so are the potential costs. Can you imagine a driverless route truck with a robot aboard to service the machines?

Like most new technologies, artificial intelligence first gained traction as a way to replace cheap labor. Robots have been working in factories for decades, so it shouldn't be surprising that today we have lights-out factories and warehouses that are fully automated, needing just a staff of technicians to keep them functioning.

But if computers keep on doing more of the work, what are all the people going to do? I'm looking at both the service provider and the consumer. We work not just for bread, but also for dignity and purpose. There are times when interaction with a real person with both intelligence and experience is not only desirable, but necessary to everyone involved in the transaction. The automation of labor and flexibility of workers in many fields is the socioeconomic dilemma of our time.

Local, people-oriented businesses that do a very large number of different things, like vending (and magazine publishing), still continue to identify niche markets and devise profitable solutions for them, and there are times when that solution requires a human being. With all that technology has to offer in terms of efficiencies, the personal touch must not be ignored, or the next big thing could very well become our biggest problem. Fortunately, the continuing need for capable humans must be apparent to anyone who thinks about it for five minutes. While NASA probably could devise that autonomous truck-route service robot system, it would be far too expensive and complicated for everyday business use.

Our industry has been quite successful in using the latest tools for data collection and analysis to fine tune its services for quicker, more flexible response to the desires of our markets, while continuing to rely on humans for filling, collecting, maintenance and customer relations. In serving people, artificial intelligence can guide humans, but it can't replace them.