I had an interesting experience at a checkout counter last week. I stopped by a convenience store on my way to work to get a bag of what in the United States is called trail mix and what in France is not but will probably soon be called le mix trailing, to sustain my blood sugar level through what promised to be a long afternoon.
I only had the one item, which happened to cost €3.95. I presented it to the young guy, presumably a new employee, at the register, who dutifully scanned the barcode and announced the price. I handed him a five-euro bill.
He took it hesitantly, opened the cash drawer, stared at it as though he had never seen money before, and… stopped. After sitting motionless for about five seconds, he took out his phone.
And I stood there while he searched for the calculator app and then slowly, laboriously punched in: five… point… zero… zero… minus… three… point… nine… five… equals…
His method, which I doubt he was taught in Convenience Store Boot Camp, was crude but effective. After a good long minute, he knew how much change to give me and handed it over with my receipt and my by-then-measurably staler trail mix.
I see this as a sign of the times (a minus sign, to be precise): in modern-day France, we can ship goods by high-speed train, scan barcodes for rapid checkout and pay instantly just by touching a Visa to the card reader, with no pin code entry or receipt signing. But if one link in this chain of sophisticated technology is a human who can’t do simple math, it’s not going to be that much faster.
I see two possibilities: either we need better basic instruction in the schools or Blade Runner is not science fiction. I say the latter because the androids in the original film, which is set in 2019 (i.e., essentially now), are bio-realistic to the point of being burdened with all the inconveniences of being actual humans, including circulatory and digestive systems. (Seriously, what’s the advantage of being a robot if you bleed when you’re cut – or shot – and have to eat, sleep, urinate, etc.?)
But let’s presume that there’s some good reason for that kind of “intelligent design.” And that robots are inevitably destined to take over more and more jobs in the years to come.
If both of those things are true, then maybe that minimart has leapt ahead of the curve by replacing its staff with androids, and my checkout bot was programmed to resemble a convenience store employee so accurately that he couldn’t even do his job. Now that’s sophisticated technology.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.