Nothing focuses a mind better than being in an unfamiliar setting. The lack of the familiar forces cognitive engagement of the executive functions of the brain. When I’ve been to the same airport countless times, I know the routine and only the unusual events cause my brain to pause and ask, “What going on?”
A recent trip to London and a series of unexpected events caused me to pause long enough to ask a few questions of myself and attempt to “make sense” of the unexpected. As incomplete and insufficient as these answers are, this is what I have come up with so far.
AI Leads to Independent Identity and Economic Opportunity
I returned home from the British Legal Tech Forum driven by an amazing Uber driver who gave me a guided tour of the suburbs of London from Trafalgar Square to Heathrow International Airport. We drove past Buckingham Palace where the Queen was “in”. Her flag was flying proudly.
We will call my Uber driver Maria. I first met Maria by virtue of a Uber request to take me from one place in London through the inscrutable streets to another place which I would never have found on my own. I always use UberX because it is the cheapest ride without having to share a vehicle with other riders. When my UberX arrived it was not the expected Prius with little room for this American’s body. Instead, up drove a full throated, tricked out Land Rover. It had buttons for everything an automobile could ask for. Maria, my new Uber driver, was as authentically personable as the day is long.
On that first trip we took a 30 minute ride over a 1.7 mile route. I learned all about Maria, her previous businesses and her delight at being a driver. Maria was a financial specialist in the banking industry. In addition to working for banks she had also founded a consultancy to provide management services to banks and those who serve them.
However, Maria loved to drive. She learned she could make more money driving for Uber, and herself, and enjoy her days far more than she did behind a desk or at a computer screen. She sold her business and chose to drive for Uber.
As anyone knows who uses Uber often, many drivers who excel in customer service are often asked if they will drive "off Uber’s clock". This is perfectly permissible because Uber drivers are not employees, they are independent contractors. Otherwise, the Uber business model would not work. Maria was such a delightful person and a fabulous driver that I asked if she provided private ride service. She delightedly told me, “Yes.”
As we were completing our first ride I asked Maria if she would be able to take me back to Heathrow when my stay in London was over the next day. She insisted on calling me “dear". She said,"Of course, dear. When can I pick you up?" I told her that it would be early in the morning at 6:30 AM and asked if that would be a problem for her. She said it would be no problem at all. She would be delighted to see me at 6:30. At 6:10 the next morning Maria texted me to tell me that she was at the hotel. She told me to take my time, she would be ready to go when I was. I was far less efficient.
At 6:30 I made it out to the curb where she was driving that phenomenal Range Rover, Warm, with the London Times and a bottle of water, I was set for the tour to Heathrow. I had no idea the delightful drive to which I would be treated. A phenomenal tour guide, Maria pointed out sites I would've missed and gave me a neighborhood assessment of places that I might want to live if ever I move to London and places that I probably did not want to choose as a residence.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, I was not prepared for what happened next. I offered Maria my credit card. She apologized and said, “I should've told you I only take cash”: At the end of my British stay I had only US dollars and I was concerned that this was going to be a problem. Maria said, “I take US dollars’. I said how much do I owe.? Maria smiled and said, “What was it worth to you?" I was flustered. I didn't know how to value the ride. I looked quizzical. Maria replied, "What did it cost you to go from the airport to your hotel?" I said I don't remember, I think it was 47 British pounds" Maria said, "that will be fine." I said I don't have any British pounds. She said that's okay I will take US dollars. I was roughly calculating in my head and probably incorrectly that the price was 47 British pounds. That might be roughly $60. I asked her if that would be appropriate. She said that would be fine. I said if $60 would be fine I'm sure $80 dollars would be even better. She said that would be fine. I know that the black cab rate from the hotel to the airport was 100 British pounds. I got a bargain and had a delightful ride with a wonderful lady.
She dropped me off at the curb, handed me her card and said if you ever come back to London I would love to be your driver because I love to drive. She said "If you ever come to Morocco, I would love to drive you there as well." I asked, “In this Range Rover?” She said yes, “I'll drive to Morocco to meet you and drive you wherever you want to go because that's my homeland. And because I love to drive.”
As I thought about that startling experience I realized how critical a role AI had played. Without AI, I could not have gotten rides around London at half the price of a taxi. Nor would I have met this delightful woman. I would never have discovered that Maria loves to drive more than she loves to do anything else and was only too happy to make herself available whenever I needed her services. Without AI and the Uber platform none of that could ever have happened. As a result, Maria can make better wages driving a vehicle far more splendid than the vehicle one contracts for by excepting the UberX ride. She can delight customers well enough to create a private business that provides her with a far greater revenue potential then a standard arrangement with any rides haring service. And, she loves to drive.
Maria left a traditional business that paid her well, provided a high level of prestige and influence in order to do work that she enjoyed more than anything else. In the process, she earned more money then she ever earned at any of her prior positions. Economic abundance and a joyful life. What more could anyone ask for? Thank you, AI.
AI Leads to Unexpected Customer Delight
As I stepped off the curb and into Heathrow airport, one of the largest airports in the world, I was still mesmerized by my unexpected encounter with Maria. However, I soon remembered that the last time I was at Heathrow there were large crowds, long lines and unhappy people. It was a very unpleasant experience. This time when I stepped into the airport terminal, there were no crowds, no lines and the only people I saw were there to serve passengers. My first stop was at the bag drop where I was met by a very pleasant person who scanned my digital boarding pass, printed the appropriate bag label, attached it and wished me a “bon voyage”. I was gone in under than a minute.
My next stop was the boarding pass security checkpoint. There was no crowd. There were no lines. There was only one very pleasant assistant who helped people navigate the eight scanners that allowed passengers to automatically pass their security check with a boarding pass and a passport without human intervention. The assistant was there to simply provide guidance for anyone who could not navigate the digital check in. He was very pleasant.
The next step in the security process was the dreaded carry on baggage security point. There was no line. There was no crowd. It was merely an automated station where four passengers at a time could unload their carry-ons and deposit their laptops or other items into bins that were automatically delivered so that you could place your possessions on the conveyor line that took them through the security check. The only person visible was an assistant who stood on the other side of the automated tray dispenser to assist passengers if they had any questions. She was very pleasant.
The next stop was the body security scan which was attended by a single attendant to help the passengers understand how to appropriately stand so that the body scan could do its work. She was very pleasant. On the other side of the security checkpoint there were no lines. There were no unhappy passengers. There were no unhappy service personnel. I had passed through security from beginning to end in less than five minutes. The majority of that time was spent walking, not waiting.
The next stop on my journey was the boarding area for the aircraft that would take me back to the US. There was no crowd, there were no lines. There was merely an automated boarding pass check as people walked through and onto the plane without delay, without distress and in amazement.
From curb to my seat in the plain in 10 minutes at Heathrow was a completely unexpected delight. Thank you, AI.
After being seated on the aircraft (leaving on time), we taxied to the runway. The next human voice I heard was that of the flight attendant at just under 10,000 feet. She told us that we would be the first flight into the US to pilot the new facial recognition system that just had been deployed by the US Customs Service. Although I was delighted to be a guinea pig, I imagined that there may have been some nervous passengers either concerned about their other identity or the fear that big brother had finally arrived.
After an effortless and delightful flight we deplaned at JFK and walked steadily without delay, without lines and without dispirited passengers. I traveled directly to the customs official who directed me to the appropriate station where I would encounter facial recognition at the border for the first time. There were no lines, there were no crowds, there were no stressed-out passengers. As I stepped up to the station with the US customs agent examining my passport and asking questions about my purchases. He said, did you bring anything back from London?" Being my ever jovial self I said "just a cold." He said, “That doesn't count." He laughed, and said, “Have a good day, Mr. Bridgesmith." From the plane through customs in only the time it took to walk there was amazing in itself. A joke (some would question whether that was really a joke) which was shared with US customs agent was icing on the cake.
I have never had a more pleasant, efficient, and delightful passenger experience then my most recent Journey from Heathrow to the customs agent at JFK. Thank you, AI
AI Leads to Unpredictable Employee Satisfaction
As mentioned above, absolutely every person I encountered serving in a customer service position from the moment I stepped into Heathrow until I departed the US customs agent at JFK was an amazingly pleasant encounter. Thank you, AI.
here is no question, that there were fewer attendants, and customer service representatives then I have ever encountered in any travel to any destination. Maybe it's true, AI is eating our jobs. I don't know how many employees it would've taken to do the same thing that took place at Heathrow on this journey as compared to my last visit. I estimate that was a fairly substantial number. That is a question I cannot answer with certainty.
However, I can say with absolute assurance that the employees I did meet over that eight hour journey we're the most pleasant, delightful, efficient and engaged employees I have ever encountered in 40 years of air travel. Thank you, AI.
AI Leads to Predictable Employee Fear
In contrast to the Nirvana-like delight I just described, it was immediately over as soon as I left U.S. Customs at JFK. The influence of AI ceased the moment after I removed my glasses and looked into the camera.
From that point forward, it was business as usual. Now in the massive JFK airport with no guidance, no direction, no signs and no one to assist, the next 45 minutes was spent finding my way through the on boarding process all over again. I had previously completed that same journey on the other side of the pond in 10 minutes at Heathrow. I had to find the ticket counter where I could check my bag or decide not to. I had to find security and go through the process of identification verification, baggage scrutiny and body scan. From the time I left the customs agent until the time I was on the other side of security in possession of my carry-on items, 45 minutes had expired. I had walked far less distance than I had at Heathrow and had waited far longer.
It was a decidedly different experience as I followed the very unclear path to security. I encountered what one typically expects at airports: a long line of passengers waiting to clear security. From the boarding pass and identity check to the carry-on baggage claim through the body scan and the reclaiming of carry-on baggage, I encountered 10 very unhappy people. These were the customer service agents (TSA, airline or airport employees) who were given the task of helping passengers get through the system and onto their airplanes. I don't recall encountering a "happy camper" among them.
As congested, confusing, and unhelpful as we have all grown to expect the air travel process to be, I had never experienced anything like JFK. Ironically, the same carry-on baggage inspection system had already been installed at JFK that I had experienced at Heathrow. An automated dispenser of the same kinds of bins for carry-on items, appeared to be the same at JFK that I first saw at Heathrow. I thought to myself, “Well isn't this wonderful? Modernization has come to United States.”
The TSA agent who is responsible for the efficient use of that automated system was amazing. As four passengers at a time came up and received our plastic bins in which to place our carry-on belongings, the unhelpful TSA agent on the other side of the mechanism seemed to be intent on making every passenger experience a living hell. She screamed at passengers, she ignored passenger’s questions, she was as unhelpful as any human being I have ever met. Among the four of us who arrived at the same time, one was a woman with a newborn carried in a pouch in front of her. The TSA agent screamed at her, and the woman softly replied, ”I don’t speak English, I’m French.” For whatever reason I reached back into my high school French brain to try to find some helpful words. As I spoke horrible French to the woman beside me, the TSA agent screamed, “You can’t talk to her.” When I tried to explain the woman’s plight to the TSA agent, she screamed at me, "I am not talking to you." Seeing a challenge that I could not resist, I decided to be helpful anyway. (Frankly I'm surprised I wasn't arrested.)
As a screaming TSA agent on the other side of the bin dispenser became increasingly agitated (as if that were possible), I decided it was my job to be increasingly helpful. I attempted to speak to the French woman with the baby and the TSA agent screamed at me "Do not talk to her”. I responded she doesn't speak English. The TSA agent again screamed at me, "I'm not speaking to you". She added as if for effect, “Don't talk to me.” Pandemonium had clearly arrived and chaos ensured shortly thereafter.
The four passengers who had arrived at the carry-on station at the same time somehow made our way through the body scan and found ourselves on the other side waiting for our carry-on items to clear. 20 minutes elapsed before we saw any of our belongings. The line on the other side of the security checkpoint had grown unbelievably long because for 20 minutes nothing was getting through. Only four of us had successfully passed the body scan. The security scan for carry-on items was shut down.
I've been a labor and employment lawyer for 40 years, I think I recognize a slowdown or a sit down strike when I see one. I can't prove this to be true, but I strongly suspect that the TSA agent who had "lost her mind" was protesting the fact that she was being asked to do what previously four people had done because of the way in which the bin dispenser functioned automatically. She didn’t have to do more work. More work could be done easily with less people. I understand that is mere speculation on my part, but is it possible that one person's response to automation and its impact on employment was not to that person’s liking?
Whether that's a sound conjecture or not, it certainly was in stark contrast to the same machine being operated in the same way by a much more pleasant person at Heathrow. And speculation or not, many people believe that automation is unfair because it will "steal your job”. It doesn't seem that the people from Uber Driver Maria to the US customs agent at JFK saw it quite the same way.
Still, it's a legitimate debate that deserves a great deal of attention.
For example the impact of AI and automation on a number of professional positions has created significant and understandable concern. A recent article in the New York Times demonstrated the pervasive belief that automation, especially AI, will place large numbers of knowledge workers at economic risk, or out of work entirely.
At the same time another recent conference for radiologists clearly recognized the inevitable impact of AI on the skill set possessed by those who interpret x-rays, CT scans and other radiological tests. The Radiologists saw both risk and opportunity. The outcome was not so dire because the radiologists decided that managing the risk was superior to avoid it.
Understanding that automation in any form will always impact the status quo of jobs and economic opportunity when machines can do work which was previously performed by humans. John McCarthy, Professor of engineering at Dartmouth coined the phrase “artificial intelligence" in 1956 in almost exactly those terms. He further went on to say, "When AI works, it's no longer AI." That was over 60 years ago!
The fact that the ice maker in our refrigerator replaced an industry built on ice collection, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, along with countless employees doesn't seem to matter to us. We don't care that our smart phones have put the Yellow Pages, telephone 411 information operators and map makers out of business. When AI works, it is no longer AI.
Perhaps the problem is not automation, but the choices we make as human beings in response to automation.
It’s all about choice
My wife and I recently had the great pleasure of attending a concert performed by the Eagles. After Glenn Frye's untimely death last year, Nashville citizens are proud that the Eagles now include one of our favorite citizens, Vince Gill.
The concert was a three hour tour de force. Don Henley announced at the outset that they would play 2 1/2 hours of all the songs they knew. They under promised and over delivered. As the third hour approached of absolutely heavenly music, the lights went out and the Eagles left the stage. The crowd clamored for more.
The first encore (out of four) was the song that had not been played in all of the songs that preceded it: Hotel California. You don't have to know and love the Eagles to know that classic. To my knowledge, Don Henley has only spoken about the lyrics of that song on one occasion and has not spoken of it publicly since. He identified the Hotel California as the human craving for comfort and convenience. As the light glimmers on the horizon, "It could be heaven, it could be hell." The weary traveler is enticed into the Hotel California and quickly realizes that this is not a place you want to be. Comfort is a jealous mistress and once you've accepted it as your worldview, "You can check out, but you can never leave." As attractive as a life of comfort can be, it is a trap for the unwary. When comfort becomes more valuable then the sustainable need for flexibility, the outcome is horrific.
A parable is told of the monk who visited peasants in a poor village at the edge of society. All the family had to its name was a cow. The cow provided milk and little more. However milk could be made into butter and could be added to other grains and produce to improve the flavor and add vital nutrients to the family's diet. After the Monk and his young protegé had left the family, the Monk informed the neophyte to return to the family’s meager property and push the cow over the cliff. With great resistance the novitiate refused to do so until the monk insisted. Not willing to abandon his mentor, the young student returned and with great remorse pushed the cow over the cliff to its death.
Many years later the Monk’s attendant, now an adult, happened to travel to that area of the country and decided to go visit the place he remembered and see if the family had survived. When the visitor approached what was once a hovel, he saw a mansion. Confused, he approached the front door of the mansion, knocked, and asked if there was once a poor family who lived on this property. The homeowner said, “We have lived on this property all our life”. The visitor completely confused at this point said, “Did you once have a cow?” The owner of the mansion replied, “We used to have a cow. She kept us alive. We didn’t own anything else. One day she fell down the cliff and died. To survive, we had to start doing other things, develop skills we did not even know we had. We were forced to come up with new ways of doing things. It was the best thing that ever happened to us! We are now much better off than before.”
What’s Your Choice?
The hard truth is that automation has always impacted the current economic system, most always for the better. The steam engine put untold hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) out of work, to a net positive economic effect. The human economic status before the steam engine was 1/10 the economic well being of people who were forced to learn new skills other than buggy whip construction. That new skill set improved their economic standing.
AI and automation of work which was previously done by professional knowledge workers (lawyers, physicians, teachers, radiologists) will have the same effect the steam engine had on manual laborers. New skills will be required to adjust to a new economic order.
Beware the Tyranny of Convenience! It steals opportunity, hides the danger of complacency and makes us mind-blind to economic peril.
Not one of us will allow automation and AI to stop serving our individual interests. I can’t find the people who are standing in line to return their smart phone for a rotary dial. Economic power is like a tsunami. Nothing will stand in its way.
The only successful choice we have is to adjust to changing economic circumstances, acquire new skills, abandon our addiction to comfort and leave Hotel California.
About the Author:
Larry Bridgesmith J.D., is CEO of LegalAlignment LLC and a practicing lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He is listed as one of America’s Best Lawyers, among the Leading Lawyers for American Businesses and SuperLawyer. He is a member of the International Academy of Mediators and a member of the Dispute Resolution Section Council of the American Bar Association. Larry has practiced in the fields of labor, employment and dispute resolution for over 30 years and served in management roles for boutique and mid-sized law firms throughout his career.
Larry W. Bridgesmith
CEO Co-founder Legal Alignment
Vanderbilt Law School