Unexpected item in the bagging area.

The rise of the machines. Skynet and The Matrix aside, is the real threat that self-service checkout in Tesco?

From time to time there are articles in the media that warn us that we are about to lose our jobs to automation, to robots, to the machines.

Quite often these articles suggest a list of jobs that they think will be safe from this threat. The list often includes gardener and hairdresser. Interestingly, and perhaps slightly worryingly, one of my neighbours has a robot lawnmower. It spends all day bumbling across his lawn, kept from straying by a few GPS coordinates and cutting the grass super smooth with it’s electric shears.

I’m sure that last week I caught him looking at it wondering what sort of a job it would make of his hair if he were to just carefully lower it on to his head.

Perhaps no jobs are safe?


When it comes to petrol stations and the pumps that offer us ‘Pay at kiosk’ or ‘Pay at pump’ it’s about giving us a choice, I get that. But I wonder how long we’ll be offered that choice and how long it will be before driverless cars are driving into unmanned petrol stations up and down the country.

And it’s not just about choosing your payment method. Those micro-interactions that happen over a till receipt and a chip and PIN device are important.

‘Mornin’. Pump number three please,’ says I.

‘That’ll be twenty pounds and a penny.’ (Why can I never get it to stop dead on the round sum no matter how hard I try?)

‘It’s a lovely day,’ I say, smiling and tapping my card on the machine.

‘It is lovely, isn’t it. You enjoy the rest of your day and drive safe, eh. See you again.’

There you are. Not so much in itself but these points of contact are important. They reassure us that we are part of society, part of a group, they stop us from feeling lonely and they make us happier. It’s a scientific fact, they do. We’ll miss them when they are gone.

Labour saving devices

From the Veg-O-Matic or the Sunbeam Mixmaster of the 60’s kitchen to the latest app, bit of software or gizmo saving time and saving effort has been the benefit most loudly shouted about. (So it makes me wonder why I’m still tired by Friday and I don’t seem to have vast amounts of spare time on my hands.)

Certainly these self-service opportunities at the garage, in the bank or increasingly at the supermarket check out offer an opportunity to save labour but the labour that is being saved isn’t mine. I am doing more work, not less.

I’m happy to pump my own petrol at the garage, although I can just about remember petrol pump attendants, but now I’m effectively running the till as well. In the bank, the ATM lets me do what the cashier used to do only I’m not being paid to do it and increasingly, as banks cut staff numbers, neither are they.

In the supermarket I’m scanning my own shopping and ringing up my own till and judging by the increasing number of self service checkouts and the decreasing number of cashiers, it’s a job that I better get used to.

‘Please scan an item, or touch the screen to start.’

For the banks, the supermarkets and the others, this is obviously a long-term plan because at the moment, the person whose job has been taken by the machine is now employed to explain to befuddled customers how the machine works.

That won’t last forever. In time we will all be trained up and those jobs will go and people will say, the machines took those jobs. But they didn’t, did they? The accountants did.

Machines don’t think evil thoughts and plan for global domination, at least not unless they are programmed to, but people look to lower costs and increase profits and that is fair enough, it’s called ‘business’ but increasingly business impacts on society, how we live our lives and the quality of them.

I suspect very few of us would look forward to a time when we can fill up with petrol, put money in the bank and do the weekly shop all without interacting with a single human being.

Queue here

And having said all that, perhaps we needn’t worry too much about our future. These machines are generally there to offer an alternative to the queue but the British are the best at queuing in the whole world. We are famous for it. There are jokes about it.

At every bank and in every supermarket you will find a long line of people patiently avoiding the opportunity to use a self-service machine, even if a helpful member of staff tries to steer them towards it.

The nice thing about queuing is that it gives you a chance to have a little break and perhaps chat to someone, and that’s always nice, isn’t it.