As machines take over, what happens to the human touch?

Technology may be a blessing, but we should only introduce it in areas that we are confident we have mastered, argues Taryam Al Subaihi

The 21st century is truly the age of technology, where every year brings with it previously unimaginable advancements that shower progress on every industry. Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP
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The machines are taking over in the UAE. While this may seem like a line from the latest Hollywood science-fiction movie trailer, a trip to the Drivers Licensing Department of Abu Dhabi Police to register your car will prove that it’s really happening. The day many have longed for, and others have feared, has finally arrived: machines, not humans, are now serving customers.

The 21st century is truly the age of technology, where every year brings with it previously unimaginable advances that shower progress on every industry. Gone are the days when only the elderly would reminisce and marvel in wonder at the progress achieved through technology; one now only need look back at the past five years to see the enormous leaps we have made in the fields of communications, health, security and government services, to mention only a few.

The machines have taken the next step – to the front lines of customer service, bringing quick and accurate service without any need for human interaction.

Registering your car in Abu Dhabi was once a process that could take days and sometimes weeks to complete. Until quite recently, you would still need to put aside up to half a day to complete the task. Now you can register a car in less than an hour, without ever having to deal with an upset service agent or empty desk again.

Along the wall, standing as if at attention on the front lines of the traffic department, are large kiosks with short queues of customers. To use the machines, you just punch in your Emirates ID, confirm your name and, when required, make your payment online through a credit or debit card. After you’ve paid the processing fee, out of the machine drops your insurance card and date sticker to place on your licence plate. From start to finish, the process involves no human factor.

It is an unforgettable experience everyone should try at least one. Yet, it is hard not to notice the empty counters where not so long ago more than 10 Emirati customer-service operators of various ages worked from morning to late in the evening to help customers register their cars and resolving traffic-police issues.

Of course, change is inevitable, and similar thoughts were expressed when machines replaced humans in factories and in certain jobs in construction, transport and medicine.

More than those elsewhere in the world, people in the UAE understand the need to adapt and welcome change with open arms. But with these bold steps being taken in the name of progress, perhaps some consideration should be given to the Emirati employees who will be affected by this change and the knowledge that may be lost when machines continue to take over the jobs performed by humans.

And while it is undeniable that the UAE has achieved so much in the past few decades in terms of customer service, the fact remains that we are still relatively new to this area and there is still much to learn.

The customer service provided by the agents at the Licensing Department was not always perfect, but they were learning the trade in the best place to do so – on the front line with the customers. The knowledge acquired over the past 40 years by the people working in government services – in particular the lessons learnt from dealing with upset customers – should be collected and built upon, and transferred from manager to employee in the years to come.

But with the introduction of even newer technology, this noble journey may be coming to an end. Technology is undoubtedly a blessing for our generation, but perhaps we should only introduce it in areas that we are confident we have mastered and are now ready to pass on to the machines.

Taryam Al Subaihi is a political and social commentator who specialises in media and communications

On Twitter: @TaryamAlSubaihi