Article: Are we too addicted to technology?

Jetsons-technolgyWe’re completely addicted to technology, becoming more and more dependent on it all the time, from communicating and payments to getting around and entertainment, but what happens when things go wrong? How vulnerable does it leave us?

Our everyday lives are being continually transformed by new applications of technology emerging all the time, they’re fantastic, and make our lives so much simpler. I can walk into McDonalds, tap away at a touch-screen and in moment place an order for my Big Mac meal with fries and a chocolate milkshake. I just tap my debit card (or smartphone with pay app) to the payment terminal below the touch-screen, and I’m way ahead of the queue of people waiting to place their orders manually and pay by cash.

My mobile phone isn’t really a phone anymore, but a complex computer system with a plethora of applications that facilitate my daily life, from ordering pizza, to entertaining me with social media content on a range of platforms. It acts as my wallet, train ticket, notebook, newspaper, diary, alarm clock, map (with navigator), heart rate monitor, barcode scanner, tape measure, oscilloscope and more. We’re beyond 60’s Star Trek with exception of the transporters!

Our smart TVs save programs for us to view when we want, instead of organising our social plans around our favourite TV shows, and now robot vacuum cleaners are starting to do the chores for us, mapping out the house at the same time so not to miss a single inch. Samsung’s range of smart home appliances are now able to tell us when the washing is done, or when the dishwasher has finished. Smart homes are starting to become the norm with intelligent control over multi-coloured multi-level lighting, heating and even running a bath, so it’s ready when you get home. Again, our Mobile phones are serving more than one purpose acting as our hand-held interface to this emerging digital world.

It won’t be long before self-driving cars start to become commonplace in town centres, slowly expanding further into the road network, and autonomous aircraft will make pilotless planes a reality in the coming years. Autonomous robots to do household chores like those shown in Channel 4’s TV series Humans will most possibly become a reality within a couple of decades as robotics companies strive for better technologies over articulation control with intelligent software to drive it. Voice commands are no problem already, with my Google Maps understanding perfectly my voice commands to drive to a friend’s house or place of interest.

With even more innovation and delivery of new technologies are we not exposing ourselves to irreconcilable problems when something goes wrong?

Today’s news headlines feature “Chaos at Asda stores across the country as tills and card machines break due to system error”. Imagine the cost to Asda today as customers have had to abandon their weekend shopping across 630 stores because the tills won’t accept digital payments (on credit or debit cards). Asda’s cash machines were also affected, with no £5 and £10 notes being available, and for those wishing to pay by cash, the tills shut down completely afterwards.

Speculation of the problem has given rise to theories that the clocks going back doe to the end of British Summertime could have been the cause, with the software caught in a quandary as to what to do next.

Interestingly, the previous Sunday, I was buying winter screenwash for my car from Andrew Page Car Parts, when I was faced with a similar situation myself. They had a glitch on their payment systems, and couldn’t take card payments, but only cash (and were kind enough to provide an extra 10% discount for the inconvenience).

The problems are not limited to payments and card machines. IT Problems causing chaos are often in the media, from hospital problems in Yorkshire to GPS not working on Bristol busses. Fortunately, it seems that in many cases, disruption is localised, but not always.

Just over a month ago, British Airways faced problems with a worldwide “technical glitch” affecting its check in desks leaving customers to face missed flights and long waits. British Airways were also at the forefront of problems when they moved into Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 in 2014. Thousands of passengers were arriving at their destinations to find their baggage was still stuck at Terminal 5, with technicians trying to clear a 28000-bag backlog. A similar problem with bags happened in 2014 following an IT failure.

Countless articles feature traffic brought to a standstill whenever traffic lights go faulty. The disruption and inconvenience when technology stops working is dire. It seems that as we embrace new technologies and retire the old ways, we lose contingency, which does not seem to feature very well in today’s technology applications. Our vulnerability becomes exposed, and the cost to us and to industry can be enormous.

Driverless cars are undergoing a lot of testing by manufacturers and developers, the idea of being able to get a ride to work by my robotic car while I watch breakfast TV or read a kindle book while sipping coffee is certainly novel. The idea is not only of convenience, but of safety as an array of sensors should be constantly monitoring the road and area around the car, with the car taking actions as appropriate. Unfortunately, it seems we’ve got quite a way to go on this one, with a long list of robotic car accidents spread throughout the media including an accident death, and this does bring to question how much worse can technology problems get when you’re dealing with Artificial Intelligence as well.

This leads us to many questions: Why are we not building contingency into the technology? Are we over-confident in it because it seems to work most of the time without fault? Is the reason there is no backup because the costs outweigh the benefits? Are we experiencing the result of lowest cost deliverables that work to a specification, but show no initiative for exceeding the specification? What will the disasters of the Artificial Intelligence age bring us?

Writing this on Halloween Eve, can we conclude that Terminator and the rise of the machines is merely a fantasy? Are we depending too much on technology to make our lives easier?

Further reading:

MSN, Daily Mirror, “Chaos at Asda stores across the country as tills and card machines break due to system error”:

Evening Standard, “British Airways delays: frustration for thousands of passengers after 'worldwide' glitch at check-in desks”:

BBC News, “28,000 bags caught in T5 foul-up”:

BBC News, “Heathrow passengers wait for lost bags after IT failure”:

Yorkshire Post, “The IT problems causing hospital chaos across Yorkshire”: