8 Ways Automation Has Infiltrated Our Lives (And You Didn’t Even Know It)

Open up the nearest newspaper — if they still print newspapers anymore — and you’ll likely see, buried somewhere inside, a story about another business that’s investing in automated systems. Zuckerberg and Musk argue over AI. Stephen Hawking fears for our existence. Panic! The robots are coming!

Sorry to break it to you. They’re already here.

In my last article, I looked at how — big shock — movies lie about the real power of AI; far from being ruled by intelligent machines, we’re really in the automation age. You know, it’s like the stepping stone to the far more advanced artificial intelligence, only we use these machines to carry out repetitive or routine tasks without manual intervention, rather than plotting total world domination cleverly reserving you a table at a restaurant using your smartphone (or ordering your food before you even get to the venue).

The long march of the machines has finally paid off. In fact, you may not even realise just how ridiculously prevalent automation is today…

The robots are watching you

It didn’t take long for the machines to take over our security — to be fair, they’ve been threatening to do it since Robocop. But today, surveillance is being automated, so rather than a security guard faced with the impossible task of monitoring every individual CCTV feed (there are around 1.85 million security cameras in the UK), robots can now assess the footage and alert a human when it thinks there’s a problem.

In an article over on Wired, they stated that:

‘Surveillance systems that include video analytics analyze video footage in real-time and detect abnormal activities that could pose a threat to an organization’s security. Essentially, video analytics technology helps security software “learn” what is normal so it can identify unusual, and potentially harmful, behaviour that a human alone may miss.’

Which might not make you feel any safer, but without this sort of technology filtering down to the mainstream, CCTV feeds probably wouldn’t get seen by any one until after an incident’s been reported — companies simply don’t have the time, money or manpower to do it efficiently or effectively. That’s kind of the point of automation in the first place.

Those items that Amazon recommends

We’ve all done it. We’re done shopping online, we’re about to check-out when suddenly Amazon tells us, ‘Hey, if you like X, why not buy Y?’ It’s the digital equivalent of those chocolate bars they whack at the counter; an irresistible impulse purchase — only this one’s specifically tailored to you. 
And while it might be comforting to think that Amazon has employed someone to get to know your likes and dislikes in order to flog you a superhero movie, truth is, it’s all down to clever algorithms that automatically make ‘judgements’ based on the shopping history of you and those like you.

Netflix’s recommended movies, which pop up once your film’s over, work on the same principle — analysing every decision you’ve made, every show you’ve watched (and how long you watched it), to predict what you may want to watch next before you know it yourself.

Your bank’s fraud detection system

It’s payday. You spend-spend-spend like Viv Nicholson on a shopping spree and then your card gets declined. Whoops. Sorry, no more buying things for you.

Turns out, this isn’t your bank manually spying on every transaction you make; instead, they have a system that compares your typical banking habits with what might be considered ‘unusual activity’. Cue a machine locking down that account until those payments are confirmed.

Being financially savvy institutions, banks have embraced all kinds of automation, following up an automated shut down with an automated phone call informing you to call your bank. If only they could automate queuing up in my local branch…

The stuff you read online

I’m not talking about this stuff you’re reading now. This was crafted by the fleshy hands of a fallible human. But there are now vast chunks of the internet that are essentially written by bots, for bots.

You’ll know you’ve stumbled across one of these articles because it reads like the stream of consciousness ramblings of the insane. Sentences run into each other without much care for punctuation, and you’ll notice a high frequency of ‘keywords’ — the ones Google crawls your site for to see what you’re all about, and where to rank you in their results.

It’s not all content written by bots, for bots though. Companies like Press Association use bots to create data-based news reports for human consumption. They’re not particularly well-written, feeling rather flat and personality-free, but they plug a gap, are generated a lot faster than someone typing them out by hand, and help increase content output that would otherwise be missed by overloaded writers.

And the people you meet there

It’s not just the words we read online; sometimes the people we see or interact with are little more than automated bots. So, don’t go giving them your bank details or falling in love with them.

Is your business in need of a social media ego boost? Want to look more popular than you really are? Buy yourself 5,000 social media followers for £5 — instant friendship! But most, if not all, will be dummy profiles for bots. And while some are laughably basic, other bots have had a little more care given to them, resulting in seemingly genuine profiles of people engaging in seemingly genuine conversations.

One of the major problems with this is that businesses are paying for adverts or product placements with ‘celebrity influencers’ designed to be seen by real, actual people, but end up getting charged for ‘views’ from bots — which amounts to giving money away for nothing.

Speaking of advertising…

All your online ads are automated too

Most of the adverts you’re assaulted by online are based on your browser history or relevant to the site you’re on. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, ‘nearly 80 percent of digital display advertising transactions [are] expected to be automated this year.’

Known as programmatic marketing, these ads work a lot like the recommendation systems like those employed by Amazon and Netflix, in which companies bid on getting their ad seen, and the robots take care of the rest, ensuring that the adverts are targeted to the right people (you) at the right time (now).

That automation got Google into a bit of trouble earlier in the year when various companies withdrew their ads because they had no idea where they’d be seen (i.e. on not particularly nice websites and YouTube videos). But while Google may tweak their algorithms, don’t expect automation to disappear; tons of marketing tools are automated these days, from data-gathering and analysis to those ‘Thanks for giving us your money’ order confirmation emails.

Even your car is automating elements

Advanced driver-assistance systems (or ADAS) refers to a whole host of gadgets and features implemented in your vehicle to make your life easier. Crucially, they still offer full driver control. Automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and rear-view cameras are all part of the ADAS family. So are those annoying beeps that tell you you’re getting too close to the barrier when reversing into a parking space.

Essentially, as Texas Instruments argued, the real purpose of ADAS is to drive down costs (no pun intended) to clear the path for driverless cars:

‘To make self-driving feasible for vehicles in series production, the technology will have to be commercialized and made smaller, more light-weight and affordable, a process that can only be accomplished gradually over a period of years.’

Businesses automate your customer experience

Whenever you engage with a medium- to large-sized company, chances are, they’re using an automated system to help facilitate your interaction. That might be capturing and storing your contact details or directing your call to the right department or enabling the e-commerce arm of their online store.

Automation has become the lifeblood of many businesses today — either they’d have to down-size, shut-up shop or offer the same service at a greater expense and a slower pace. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a software house MD (Scout’s honour); let’s look at the effect of one of the first recognisable automated systems: The barcode scanner. According to a recent report from management consultancy firm McKinsey & Co.:

‘The large-scale deployment of bar-code scanners and associated point-of-sale systems in the United States in the 1980s reduced labor costs per store by an estimated 4.5 percent and the cost of the groceries consumers bought by 1.4 percent. It also enabled a number of innovations, including increased promotions. But cashiers were still needed; in fact, their employment grew at an average rate of more than 2 percent between 1980 and 2013.’

No wonder businesses across the world are automating their administration, right? We can see two major benefits to deploying the right technologies right off the bat: It ensures streamlined companies can easily manage a greater number of customers and it makes your journey with them so much smoother. Win-win.

Now apply that success to other industries and it’s not difficult to see why automation is everywhere. So, even if you’re sat in a bunker sitting out the inevitable war between pulpy humans and demonic AI, chances are, you’re not escaping automation anytime soon.

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