Saskia Murphy scans
technology and waits
for an assistant

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There have been some pretty helpful technological developments in the past 10 years or so – mobile banking, online streaming, boarding passes that don’t have to be printed, apps that allow you to buy food otherwise destined for the bin.

Other inventions haven’t quite taken off because they are useless at best and ridiculous at worst. I’m thinking along the lines of “smart hair brushes”, unveiled by L’Oreal last year and sold for the princely sum of $200 (£160). The brush, dubbed the Hair Coach, records the sound of breaking hair and feeds data back to owners so they can build up a profile of their hair health. That one can go in the ridiculous category, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll put it in there with the bluetooth toaster, which syncs to a smartphone app and remembers personalised settings for the perfect slice.

Many of these strange inventions often go no further than tech conferences in Tokyo or Silicon Valley, but there is one piece of technology that has managed to seep into every high street in the country, causing nothing but widespread misery: the self-service checkout machine.

When they first came on the scene they were a novelty. It seemed like a good idea, bypassing the queue of people waiting for traditional human service in favour of a seemingly faster, more efficient machine. I had flashbacks to my nursery days, where my friends and I would scan Early Learning Centre plastic replicas of tins of beans and toy bananas. But it didn’t take long before I realised the real-life version was far from fun.

Anyone who has ever used these contraptions of fury will know what I am talking about. The process usually goes as follows: shopper approaches machine and starts scanning items. Machine informs shopper that there is an unexpected item in the bagging area, even though nine times out of 10 there isn’t. Shopper then has to wait while machine flashes angry red light and demands assistance from human being. Flustered human being who has carried out the same process hundreds of times over the past two hours approaches apologetically while disgruntled shopper unfairly places the blame on them. Human resolves issue, and if shopper is lucky they manage to pay for their shopping and leave without going through the same painful process all over again.

Has there ever been such an irksome invention? Not only are these machines putting people out of jobs, they’re just not working. A recent consumer survey revealed one in four people admit to stealing from unmanned checkouts, and a figure from the same report suggested that the total cost of items stolen through self-checkout machines in 2017 came in at more than £3bn, up from £1.6bn in 2014 – though the numbers are speculative.

My guess is that most of those who admitted to stealing aren’t regular candidates for theft. Often the process of trying to buy something from a self-checkout machine is just so annoying that people can’t really be blamed for rebelliously telling the machine they are buying an onion when really it’s a mango.

It’s time to accept the self-checkout machines are a flop. Let’s just cancel them and move on.

Technology is supposed to make life easier, not cause distress during an innocent venture out to buy milk. Bring back the humans.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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