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Wouldn't you rather speak to a real person?

I want to stop talking to machines. Only a few years ago, talking computers were rare. These days I find myself being forced into a conversation with a machine far too often.

I'm starting to envisage a future where our days are devoid of casual chats and instead are full of frustrating interactions with computers. It’s a vision I don’t like.

Shopping is one of the key ways we interact with our community.

A quick chat with the post office clerk. A smile from a checkout teller. A helpful tip from the hardware lady. A conversation with a farmer about their crop. 

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines. little eco footprints

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines comes with bonus nourishment for the soul. 

These brief moments all contribute to our sense of being part of a community.

For many, particularly the elderly, the opportunity to chat to someone at the local shops is an important part of their day. And for my daughter, shopping is one way she learns how to politely talk to strangers.

But being served by a real person may become a rarity.

Our supermarkets, hardware stores, and many of our service providers, are switching to self-service technology. We get to serve ourselves – with the help of a talking machine.

Imagine a world where we have to talk to machines each and every day

A few frustrating moments with machines has me imagining what life might be like if we’re forced to deal with talking machines too often.

I popped into a supermarket early in the morning and had no choice but to go through a self-serve checkout. I was in a good mood. I’d bumped into a good friend and we’d had a quick chat. I put down my sweet potato – "assistance needed". I picked up and put down one of my cloth bags. "Assistance needed". Then the machine couldn't give me all my change because the coin outlet was blocked. "Assistance needed". In total I got an "assistance needed" error four times. Each time I had to wait for someone to walkover from the front counter to fix the problem. I walked out of the shop grumpy and rushed.

I had a similar frustrating interaction with a machine when trying to speak to a real-life person about my telephone bill. I found myself yelling at the automatic computer voice. My daughter looked on confused. "It’s OK – it’s just a computer" I told her, as if the fact that I was talking to a computer made my yelling acceptable. The machine gave me answers to questions I didn't ask and told me to have a nice day – and hung up. I phoned multiple times until I discovered an answer that would put me through to a person.

If I found myself in a future where I was forced to talk to machines regularly, I'm guessing I would be one very grumpy person.

How to encourage a future filled with real-life people rather than machines.

Seek out and embrace opportunities to connect with and be served by people – the farmers’ market, greengrocers, butcher, baker – and small local hardware store.

If we don’t support these small local stores, we may find ourselves in a future where we have no choice but to be served by machines.

If that happened, I'm guessing our communities would become filled with very grumpy people.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 6th July 2015.