When We Automate Away All the Humans, Who Will We Talk To?

I have been thinking recently about what my world will be like when I stop having the day-to-day conversations that currently fill in the small spaces of life.

Having an unexpected laugh with a grocery clerk. Asking a barista how she is doing and then learning she’s not doing well at all, but that she going to make it because she’s “taking things one day at a time.” The conversation with the Genius Bar Associate at Apple which started as an appreciation of how incredibly good – and terrible – Siri can be and then quickly evolved into a breathless exchange about our shared love for the film, Ex Machina, as we marveled and feared our collective future.

These are the moments when I am interacting with strangers, but they are also people with whom I have so much in common. It is in these small interactions that the stories of my life are written.

When I learn something from that store clerk or that tech support associate or that down-on-her-luck barista, my world is colored and these become the stories often I tell others. If I can make someone I just met laugh as we share a moment, I simply feel more alive. We may not talk again, but we had that laugh. We had that moment. We were both part of something bigger in a way Siri can never be.

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I worry that the automated future that is slowly ebbing in will steal these moments one interaction at a time. Like a quiet thief in the night, these purposeful encounters will be taken by something that is more efficient, but far from human.

This brave new world of automation will be welcomed for sure: not having to wait the slow grocery clerk or endure the long-winded cab driver. Yes, those moments are painful to be sure. But I worry what will be lost when those people are silently erased from my life.

I know that my interactions with the world make me a better human: they contribute to my compassion for others and they help me build empathy for people I don’t know and might not otherwise have had contact.

As the creators of the automated world of tomorrow, we humans alive today have two jobs: 1) finding work for those displaced by automation; and, figuring out how to replace the tiny daily interactions that make us better people.