Our New Robot Overlords Are Programmed To Kill Us With Kindness

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March 4, 2016 by T. Gregory Argall

The bank I deal with does something unique with their ATMs.
At least, I assume it’s unique, because when I mention it to friends with accounts at other banks, they look at me strangely.

The bank machine addresses me by name.

When I insert my ATM card into one of the 8.73 trillion bank machines provided across the country by my particular financial institution, it accesses the name associated with the account and incorporates it into an on-screen greeting. Which is fancy technobabble meaning “Hello, Thomas G” pops up on the screen. When I’m done and remove my card from the machine a “Thank you for banking with us, Thomas G” message appears.

When this first started, over a year ago, it was a little unnerving at first. Pragmatically, I could understand why they would add the couple of lines of programming needed to make that happen. The marketing department told them that it would present a friendly and personable impression of the otherwise cold and impersonal automated banking experience.
Still, it was weird.
What’s the social protocol in a situation like that? Do I return the greeting? Should I say, “You’re welcome,” when the ATM thanks me? Anyone who has watched even just one episode of “Person Of Interest” knows that there are cameras inside bank machines. Would the machine judge me if I didn’t respond positively to its cordial and amiable programming?

Honestly, these questions kept me awake at night, but after a while it got to the point where I didn’t really notice it anymore. I would absently smile and nod in acknowledgement but it was more reflex than actual participation in a conversation. Just part of the whole type-in-your-PIN-code process.

Then last night the ATM wished me a happy birthday.

The ATM operates with a touch screen and at the end of each transaction two option buttons appear: “Perform Another Transaction” and “Return My Card.”
As usual, I touched “Return My Card” but it didn’t. Instead it said “Happy Birthday, Thomas G” and a button labeled “Continue” appeared.

Ignoring for the moment that my birthday is still weeks away, I was a little perturbed that the machine was insisting I acknowledge its good wishes before it would release my bank card. In fact, it wanted to be touched before it would give me back my card.
It was like those adorably cutesy high school couples that would playful take each other’s pens or calculators, only returning them in exchange for a kiss. Except that this wasn’t high school, the ATM was not my girlfriend, and it was starting to get creepy.
Also, those couples were annoying as hell in high school and everyone hated them.

With no other option, feeling extorted into acting against my will, I finally touched the screen, while defiantly muttering, “It’s not my birthday.”
A new message appeared on the screen, apparently in response to my grumbled complaint. “You didn’t think we’d forget your birth month, did you, Thomas G?” My bank card slid out of the machine and I grabbed it quickly, fearing that the machine would tauntingly snatch it away again if I was too slow.

Pocketing my cash, I walked swiftly away from the ATM, but that last message haunted me. “You didn’t think we’d forget your birth month, did you, Thomas G?” It had a bothersome Eddie Haskell vibe to it.
(If you don’t know who Eddie Haskell was, ask your parents. If they don’t know, ask your grandparents. If that doesn’t work, just Google “sycophant.”)

But deeper than that, there also seemed like a thinly veiled threat was implied. “You didn’t think we’d forget your birth month, did you, Thomas G?” felt disturbingly similar to “You’re important to us. That’s why we watch you while you sleep.”
The more I thought about it, the creepier it got.

Then came the realization that I’ll probably have to go through that again, every time I use an ATM for the rest of the month.

I don’t think I’ll be sleeping well for the next few weeks.

Try to be nice to each other.



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