The seeds of our primary interface with machine intelligence rest in the humble origins of the vending machine. Here is the brief story of this evolution of self-service.
The Process and Technology of Self-Service
Not that long-ago, shop clerks pulled merchandise for us from high shelves behind a counter. Today, we push squeaky, wheeled, metal baskets around the well-lit warehouses we call supermarkets. Tomorrow, we’ll click a link and a drone will plop a quart of fresh raspberries at our door.
In the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, automation boosted output for traditional producers like farmers and factory workers. But in the service economy, automation improves the productivity of end users. This raises interesting questions about the future of work, but those will have to wait for a future article.
In this article, I examine the evolution of automated self-service—both its underlying business processes as well as its technologies.
Self-service is, first and foremost, a business process. Business processes are activities that are linked together to generate value for a business. In some cases, the activities are internal—like managing inventory systems at Amazon or assembling a Ford F-150 truck. In others, they are externally focused, such as assisting Safeway shoppers at checkout or helping couples plan their retirement at Schwab.
Self-service is a particular way of organizing business processes for these customer-facing activities. Through it, end users can interact with a business with minimal, and in many cases no, contact with employees. Self-service can reduce labor costs and it can increase operating scale.
Self-service kiosks let Alaska Airlines employees spend less time fussing with boarding passes and baggage tags. This saves labor costs and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. With the right guidelines, automation is part of how society becomes more efficient with its resources over time. The question is how the resulting costs and benefits are shared among stakeholders.
Automated self-service is uniquely abusive when it shifts work from paid employees to unpaid end users. That is simple cost externalization; something that’s particularly galling when it doesn’t add value—like many self-checkout machines at supermarkets. Author Craig Lambert refers to this phenomenon as “Shadow Work.”