My parents have a ritual. Once a week, when my father travels to Liverpool for work, my mother wakes up with him at 5am to drive him to the train station. While it’s not the grandest of gestures, it’s one of the little, selfless acts of love – airport pick-ups, cups of tea – that married couples do for each other.
Soon, technology will have rendered this ritual completely unnecessary. Unless you have been living in North Korea for the past few years, you will have heard about the development of driverless cars. It struck me that in less than a decade’s time, autonomous cars will have removed the need for my father’s early morning station drop-off. The family car could autonomously drive my father to the station while my mother sleeps soundly in bed. It could probably even muster up a hologram of my mother to kiss him goodbye.
Similarly, I read about a storytelling robot who exhibited at Westfield Stratford over the summer. The robot, whose name is Alexander, read a selection of stories including Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio – the same stories that you might remember your parents reading to you when you were a child. It even mimicked human facial expressions to dramatise the story-telling process.
In one sense, this is a brilliant invention. Scientists have found that young children who have fiction read to them are more empathetic and better-equipped to cope in the real world. In the not-so-distant future, these robots could function in place of a parent at bedtime. And does it really matter whether it’s Daddy or RoboDaddy who is doing the reading?
Arguably, yes. First off, there are proven benefits to an actual human being present in these situations. For example, a University of California study has found that discussion during story time – the ‘Why is Snow White running off with the creepy would-be necrophiliac?’ questions, for instance – is much more beneficial for a children’s language development compared to the monologic ‘story-telling’ event.
But what we would also lose is a special moment between a parent and child at the end of the day (not to mention a storytelling tradition which is as old as humanity itself). A moment made possible by the – probably quite exhausted – parent’s choice to take 15 minutes out of their day to read to, and engage with, their child.
My last, and somewhat less sentimental, point concerns the self-service checkout. Yes, the elephant in the room – or should we call it the unexpected item in the bagging area – is that supermarkets have been notoriously slow to develop this technology to a point where it functions without a heroic Tesco employee coming to your rescue.
However, in a world of pizza delivery drones and commercial space flights, it is fair to assume that even the self-service checkout may one day function seamlessly. And when that day comes, it will rid us of five minutes more of basic human interaction a day.
That won’t be a tragedy when it concerns, for instance, the snarling wilderbeasts at Tottenham Court Road’s Morrisons on a Saturday night, but I would miss the angel at the Sainsbury’s on Farringdon Road, my one-time local, who during my daily Wrigleys purchase would warn me to keep my phone out of sight so I didn’t get mugged.
More poignantly, I imagine that for members of society experiencing great loneliness – widows and widowers, for instance – such interaction, accidental or otherwise, is important. As one harrowing study from Age UK found that one million people in the UK regularly go a whole month without any human contact, the importance of these interactions shouldn’t be sneered at.
The fundamental principle of design is that it provides a solution to a problem. And, in all three of these examples, current technology does just that. But what current technology can’t replace is those little acts of kindness towards one’s spouse, one’s child, or even a stranger. It’s hard to imagine that it ever could.