As automation and AI become increasingly pervasive in our everyday lives, will the removal of human interaction in the service sector have an impact on our mental health and social skills? Humans are evolutionarily social creatures, requiring face-to-face interaction with other people in order to be mentally and even physically healthy.
While it began slowly, the automation of service sector roles previously held by humans is nothing new. The Automated Teller Machine (ATM) arrived in the late 1960’s, removing the human teller from most banking interactions. The first self-service gas station was opened in 1947 (although pay at the pump technology wouldn’t come along until the mid-1980’s). Interactive Voice Response (the automated voice you reach when calling most corporations, to whom you find yourself over-enunciating everything) was introduced in the 1970’s. Since these technologies have been around for decades, it’s no wonder they dominate their respective industries.
More recently, we’ve seen the acceleration of this automation with self-service checkout kiosks in supermarkets and increasingly in restaurants such as Panera Bread and McDonald’s. On top of this, shoppers in the US are now using the internet for more than half of their purchases, removing face-to-face interaction with retailers. It’s not difficult to imagine this trend continuing, with nearly all retail and commercial interactions taking place with computer interfaces instead of people. Add to this the future of autonomous vehicle services and public transportation, and you begin to wonder who if anyone we’ll interact with face-to-face in the near future (not to mention VR, which may or may not be able to fully replace the benefits of in-person interaction).
To be clear, consumers seem to prefer the option of avoiding human interaction and utilizing self-service technology, most commonly citing the convenience. However, are we choosing convenience over our own well-being?
In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to isolate oneself and avoid interaction with others, such as the Hikikomori population in Japan — over 500,000 people who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at least 6 months. The loneliness of withdrawal from face-to-face interaction can double the likelihood of premature death. As automated technology has replaced human interaction, studies have shown that the percentage of older adults who say they’re lonely has doubled since the 1980’s, from 20% to 40%.
While the quality of our closest relationships is more important than interactions with strangers, the replacement of regular face-to-face interaction along with increased screen-time could be affecting our social skills. In one study, preteens who were stripped of screens for five days and had ample face-to-face interaction improved significantly in their non-verbal emotional understanding. As the study states, “…it is likely that the augmentation of in-person communication necessitated by the absence of digital communication significantly contributed to the observed experimental effect. In other words, the time the participants spent engaging with other children and adults face-to-face seemed to make an important difference.”
Someday soon, it may be possible to do just about anything without directly interacting with other people. If you wonder how big of an effect an interaction with a stranger can have on your mood, I’d suggest comparing a visit to a supermarket using the self-checkout kiosk to a visit to Trader Joe’s. In an automated future, will we adapt our social and emotional needs over time — no longer “needing or craving real social interactions…” as one Stanford Psychiatrist has contemplated? Or will we suffer emotionally, becoming less sociable and more lonely?
While the technology is inevitable, perhaps it’s time we place a premium on human interaction and our well-being over convenience.