Machines of the future? (Computer says no)

This post originally appeared in the Guernsey Press on Saturday, June 2018

A few weeks ago, I went through the hellish process of moving flat. It’s never a fun time — in fact, it’s a terrifying reminder of quite how much rubbish one person can collect: ‘Goodbye’ cards from previous jobs. Expired coupons. Some cod liver oil tablets that were so dusty and old they’d somehow congealed into one giant super-pill. They all got thrown out, and whilst tidying is never enjoyable, it has inspired a new ethos in me: no human being should ever need more than two hatchbacks worth of stuff.

I had five.

On the plus side, I’m completely in love with the new place: it’s got a few of the creature comforts I’d missed since moving to London — like a heated towel rail, softer water that isn’t pure calcium, and double glazing. I never thought I’d reach a point in my life where I’d get excited about glazing, but here we are. And whilst I’m having these difficult reminders about the sorrows of modern adult life, my attention’s been turned to technology — and those moments when the machines of the future haven’t quite turned out to be the Jetsons-esque wonders we’ve all been imagining. And the issues start at home, with:

1. Hieroglyphic Appliances

One thing I didn’t mention this new flat comes with is an integrated washer-dryer. But it gets better: an integrated washer-dryer with no instruction book. Now, I’ve tried to do the sensible things here; I turfed the flat upside down looking for the instructions: no luck. I looked online to see if I could download a manual from there: no luck. I even contacted the original manufacturer for a copy, and seeing as they’ve not replied to me for 8 weeks, it seems even they don’t know how to use the damn washer either. The dial on this thing has so many symbols and icons on it that I genuinely believe Tutankhamun would have better a chance of getting his rags sparkling white than I do.

It means I’m now left in this limbo period with a washer-dryer I now tenderly refer to as “The Mystery Machine™”. With no knowledge of what any of the settings will bring me, I’ve been reduced to simply chucking my clothes in the drum, twisting the dial to the symbol that looks closest to ‘washing’, shutting the door and hoping for the best. Remarkably it’s been fine so far, but I’m still too scared to try any of the other 3 modes under the ‘Dry’ setting for fear of my delicates getting, er, decimated.

You’d think that as time goes on and tech is appearing in more places than ever, we’d get better at designing appliances that are a little more user-friendly, right? Wrong. I got proof of this whilst at a holiday apartment with friends, and this place had one of the most futuristic ovens I’d ever seen. This beast of an oven was made by Siemens, and had just one dial and a 10-inch touchscreen.

Look, I work in tech and even this thing was too much for me. It had a setting on it for nearly every food you could imagine: Cakes, Bread, Pizza, Chicken, Potatoes, Pastry, Fray Bentos Pies… there were presets for each and every one of them. You know what we couldn’t find, though? After ten minutes of scrolling through about 300 special features, we were unable to find the normal ‘fan oven’ setting.

It made me realise that, despite technology always getting better, we’re collectively useless at designing these products to be user-friendly. Instead of ditching hieroglyphs, we’ve invented more of them AND buried them under touchscreen menus, which is a really great idea especially when you have damp hands covered in flour.

We eventually found the normal oven setting buried under one of the sub-menus, delicately named ‘4D Hot Air’. Which, funnily enough, is similar to how I feel about the whole concept anyway.

2. Self Service Checkouts

Since we’re on design, I think one of the most poorly-executed machines we have the misfortune of interacting with on a regular basis are self-service checkouts. These machines seem to be so anti-human in their design, so impossibly slow and clunky, it makes me question how anyone signed them off in the first place. The person who patented them must have made so much money on the invention they probably don’t have to go through the agony of actually using one any more.

I can’t describe to you the frustration of waiting for a self-service checkout only to see there’s some out of order, or just not switched on at all. Or, when the machine you’re at starts yelling at you about bagging area, there’s no human with the special machine-whispering powers to be found. It all ends up in this horrible situation where the machines are outdated and useless, shoppers are exasperated at the useless machines, and the staff are demoralised by the angry and exasperated shoppers. Nobody wins.

And I find that kind of sad, because at this point, we might as well stop having supermarket brands altogether; if they’re all merging into these homogeneous places where you come in, pick something up and check out again, the only standard we’ll eventually uphold a supermarket to is how much stock they have and how much it costs. It makes me feel much less guilty for buying stuff on Amazon – at least that way it’s guaranteed I won’t have to interact with anybody.

Despite all this, I’m not the biggest cynic of tech as you might think. I work for a tech company that swaps keys for your smartphone. Apps like Uber have changed the face of transport, and Amazon are changing the face of retail. And I love them all.

So I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. They just need to get smarter first. Until then, I’ll keep yelling back at self-service checkouts, sticking to good ol’ fashioned fan ovens, and praying to the Greek goddess of washing, Hotpointia, for my washing to turn out okay.