‘Press button 1 to speak to a robot’

In a ‘changing times’ special…Paul Healy on missing phone chargers, our soundbite society, pressing button 1, 2, 3 or 4…and robots taking over the world

Yes, I know it’s still November, but I can’t help mentioning the ‘C’ word.


  In most houses, the arguments are often about the immersion and the central heating. 

  ‘Who turned on the heat? Did ye not turn off the heat? Is that immersion still on?’

  We’ve virtually given up on that campaign, having moved on to a much more serious challenge.

  It’s the ‘Great Disappearing Chargers Saga’ (which never ends).

  On and on our battle against lost or missing chargers goes, day after day.

  ‘My charger was there this morning. Someone must have taken it!’

  Last Sunday I just gave up, and headed into town late in the evening to see if I could buy a new charger for my mobile.

  I’m seldom in Tesco, but it seemed like the best bet at that stage of the week.

  I knew I’d be confronted by all types of gadgets – like when the flapping birds attack Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s The Birds (a 1963 film) – so I brought our 11-year-old daughter, and she duly picked out the right charger for my iPhone. It’s now being subjected to Trump-like security measures.

            It was a week of soundbites, just like every other week is. This is the world we live in now. In the Information Age, we have access to so much there often isn’t time to really take things in. And a lot of the stuff we have access to or which invades our world is rubbish, or even actually detrimental to our daily lives. Or am I wrong about Facebook?!

  (To digress, I know that Facebook has its great qualities, but it’s a bit of a monster. Too much Facebook usage cannot be healthy. Plus, how many videos of cats doing tricks can you really watch?).

  As for the soundbites…our lives are punctuated by these snippets from social media, newspapers, television, radio. Politicians thrive in this environment, their handlers being dedicated devotees of the soundbite age. Increasingly, ‘news’ is controlled, the establishment only telling us the snippets they think it’s safe for us to hear, the politicians adept (often trained) at controlling the follow-up interviews, which – in theory – are meant to get under the surface of the soundbites.

  A political leader will say that he or she has a vision for a new Ireland. A media outlet will ‘lead’ with this soundbite. A reporter will be granted an audience with the political leader. The questioner will ask the leader what their vision is. The leader will say: ‘We want to create a new Ireland. We want a fairer Ireland, one where all our children are cherished.’

  That’s that sorted so.

            Continuing my theme this week…have you noticed that it’s all getting very robotic! One of the snippets of information I picked up this week came from a man on the radio.

  He said: “Within the next five years or so, millions of people all over the world who are now working as drivers will lose their jobs.”

  He was referring, of course, to the march towards driverless cars.

  They really are coming soon. In fact, they’re already up and running, so to speak, or certainly they’ve been developed and tested by some top companies, including Mercedes, Lexus and BMW.

  These driverless or ‘robotic’ cars are just the tip of the iceberg; experts are now saying that robots will take over about half of all ‘human jobs’ within twenty years!

  For all its undoubted positives, this technological progress is a challenge for humanity.

  It’s a challenge for those of us of a ‘certain age’ too. I’m just about used to the self-checkout craic in certain superstores, and now I have to prepare for robots taking over the world.

  Of course all these advances are at the expense of human interaction. We’re stuck in our tablets and iPads and smartphones, we’re immersed in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and human to human conversation – real, old-fashioned conversation – is under threat.

  Meetings are held by Skype and even more advanced approaches. People in offices communicate by email with people sitting a few feet from them. A family member in their kitchen who wants to know the best way to drive to…say, Belfast…will instinctively go on their mobile, rather than ask a family member in the adjoining room. We’ve evolved from apes to apps!

            Now, did I mention those damn answering machines, where they ask you to press button 1, 2, 3 or 4 when they’ve finally answered that call that means so much to them?

  First they have the cheek to record you. Then they keep you hanging on for ages. Then they usually put you on to ‘a robot.’ Then, if you do get one of your fellow under-threat humans, they want to know your address, account details and everything about you. Meanwhile, half your day is gone. How come robots/machines answer your call to them, but they can get humans to ring you when they’re doing their surveys (which “will only take five minutes”)?

  Back to robots driving cars. In years to come, will they be stopped by robotic Gardai? What will become of the youngsters selling the newspapers at the junctions in Dublin? Will the robots hand over a few coins to the charity volunteers with their buckets at the traffic lights? Will the robots listen to a robotic version of Matt Cooper or George Hook?

  Will a speeding robotic driver sheepishly say to a robotic Garda…‘Eh, I know I was fairly tipping along, but my partner is pregnant and we’re rushing to the maternity department…’

  Now it’s 10 am on Tuesday morning. It’s a busy week in the Roscommon People. Time for a screen break. I pop out for some fresh air. Walking down Abbey Street, past the tax office, I see a small elderly man slowly making his way towards me. He has a slightly dour face and a slightly dour hat. I judge him for neither; it’s a very cold morning, a day for dourness. He is pushing his bicycle by his side, progressing slowly along the footpath.

  Like me, this man’s not from the smartphone age. I’m confident that he’ll appreciate actual human interaction. So I’ll speak to him as we pass one another. 

  ‘Good morning…it’s chilly out.’

  He ignores me.

  I cross the road, because I have a regular route. An old woman passes the postbox in front of the old Council HQ. She has a shopping bag and a head scarf. She makes no eye contact. There will be no simple hello here either. Just marvellous!

  Oh well. Maybe they were both robots?