50 Years Of ATMs

On September 2, 1969, a new machine was unveiled at the Chemical Bank branch in Rockville Centre, Long Island, soon to be followed by similar machines located outside bank branches across the country.  The machine was an ATM — an automated teller machines that allowed users to get cash from their accounts at the press of a few buttons.

atm_fAt first ATMs, like all new technological developments, were curiosities, and most people still got their money the old-fashioned way.  They went into a bank, filled out a paper withdrawal slip, and presented it to one of the human tellers at a window, or they went through the drive-thru bank lane, interacting with a teller remotely and getting their money via pneumatic tube delivery.  But as time passed people realized those ATM machines, once you got the hang of them, sure were convenient — and quick.  You could get money when you needed it and on your schedule, without being at the mercy of your bank branch’s hours.

As their usage increased, the number and location of ATMs multiplied, moving from their initial locations at bank branches to appear just about everywhere.  According to the article linked above, Chase Consumer Banking alone has 16,250 ATMs, and Bank of America has even more.  And as the number of ATMs skyrocketed the functionality of ATMs has increased, too, moving beyond dispensing cash to allow users to perform just about every banking-related service they might choose.  Chase says its ATMs now can do 70 percent of the things its human tellers can do for its customers.

People didn’t focus on it at the time, but ATMs were a precursor of the machine-oriented, self-service movement in American business.  There’s a debate about whether ATMs have ultimately eliminated human teller jobs or have spread them out among more bank branches that have been opened, but one thing is clear:  banking involves much less human-to-human interaction than used to be the case.  Who knows the name of their bank branch manager?  That’s become true in other businesses where self-service machines have been introduced, too.  And in that sense ATMs helped to pave the way for internet-based businesses, cellphone apps, and other consumer-directed options that don’t involve fact-to-face communications with human beings anymore.  We’re conditioned to doing things by tapping buttons on a machine, and there is no going back.

Happy 50th, ATMs!  You’ve helped to change the world, for better or for worse.

Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.

Uber Silent

I’m a taxi kind of guy.  When I get to a new city and need to get from the airport to the hotel, I’m hard-wired to look for the taxi line and the next available yellow vehicle.  But I realize that times are changing, and that sometimes, in some places where cabs might be hard to find, it’s just easier to use Uber to get from one place to another.

0723-bus-taxi-death02But Uber sparks inner conflicts for a taxi guy like me.  With Uber, I don’t have the same sense that the person driving me is a trained professional who does this for a living.  It’s almost as if, with cabs, the little taxi light on the roof of the cab and the cab company information on the side of the vehicle create a presumed level of competence in my mind.  It’s probably silly, but when I get into the rear seat of a cab I don’t typically feel the need to fasten my seat belt — although I eventually do just to be safe — because I trust the driver to be a good driver.  And cab drivers always seem to know where they are going, too.

Uber is obviously different.  The outward trappings of a professional driver that you find in a cab are absent.  In some of my handful of Uber trips, the drivers have promptly established their competence with their driving and their behavior, and I quickly experience that familiar cab ride feeling.  With other Uber drivers . . . not so much.  Recently I took an Uber ride where the young, highly tattooed driver immediately confessed that she was new to town, and she drove the whole trip with her cell phone on her knee, looking at her map app to follow the directions to get to the airport.  Her car smelled like cigarette smoke that had been only partially masked by air freshener, and she talked non-stop for the entire drive.  Even worse, when she asked why I was in town and found out I was a lawyer, I got an earful of her family’s ongoing legal problems.  When I got to the airport — admittedly without any driving mishap — it was a relief.

The experience made me appreciate that cabs are typically clean and smoke free, and most cab drivers just drive without trying to engage you in conversation.  I suppose there are some riders who want the driver to be talkative, but for those of us who want the silent treatment, Uber should add an “Uber silent” option when ordering a ride.

Self-Made Celebrities

Technology and social media have made possible an entirely new kind of celebrity.  Along with movie stars, and sports stars, and rappers, and singers, we’ve now got people who apparently are famous, at least among a segment of the population, for their YouTube videos or some other kind of social media presence.

africa-broadband-it-internet-technologyI’ve come to realize that there is an entirely unknown field of “personalities” when I’ve seen them as the subject of articles on the msn.com website, or the news stories that now pop up when I access the Google website on my phone.  One recent example was an article about the untimely death of somebody I’d never even heard of — a woman named Emily Hartridge, who was described as a popular YouTube personality for her video posts about herself and relationships.  And given the size of the internet and the different channels for social media communication, for every Emily Hartridge there are probably hundreds or thousands of other people who have become famous to their specific cadre of followers.

It’s an example of the how modern communications technology is more democratic and a lot more diverse.  You don’t necessarily need to be found by an agent or producer or record company executive to become famous these days.  Anyone who has a cellphone and a computer and something to say or something to show can take a shot at posting self-made videos and hope to carve out a niche for themselves and find an audience.  These days, people can become self-made celebrities.

It’s a step forward in some ways, but of course there are hazards, too.  How many videos out there espouse political views that contribute to the splintering of society?  How would the Hitlers of the past have used social media to disseminate their hateful ideologies?  And how many people, in their lust for self-made celebrityhood and “likes,” are tempted to film themselves doing dangerous things in hopes of attracting more followers and becoming one of those new personalities?  Just this week, a Chinese “vlogger” died while livestreaming himself drinking and eating poisonous geckos, centipedes, and mealworms in hopes of attracting new followers.  It’s hard to believe that any rational person could be so desperate and so reckless — but a personal tool as powerful as the internet and social media is bound to bring out the crazies, too.

Apollo’s Lasting Legacy

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon — which happened on July 20, 1969 — we’ve seen a lot of interesting articles about the space program, the Apollo program, and NASA’s lunar missions, including a fascinating Smithsonian article about Apollo 11 specifically.  Popular Mechanics also has reprinted an interview with Buzz Aldrin from 25 years ago about why he went to the Moon, and why he thinks we should go back.

as16-113-18339hrsmOne of the most intriguing pieces I’ve seen was a UPI article that sought to identify products and technologies that can be attributed to the Apollo program and that still are in use today.  (That means that “Space Food Sticks,” an awful-tasting product from my youth that quickly went out of production, doesn’t qualify.)  The UPI writer found that Apollo’s legacy goes beyond Tang, velcro, and computer chips.  Products such as the “Dustbuster” hand-held vacuum cleaner, high-performance athletic shoes, communications headsets, credit card swiping machines, and even the “memory foam” in your mattress all trace their roots back to developments that occurred during the Apollo program.

These technological advances are important, of course, and show what can happen when you hire a bunch of really smart, creative, highly motivated engineers and problem-solvers, give them a mission and adequate funding, and establish a meaningful deadline to achieve the goal.  Technological developments are a pretty predictable result of such an effort, which is one reason why I think the United States should end the 50-year drought and get back into the manned space arena in a significant way — whether through government programs, or through partnership with the private companies that are focused on space, or through some other creative means.

But new technology and techniques are not, perhaps, the best reason to go back into space.  For those of us who grew up during the ’60s space program days, and dreamed about being an astronaut like the courageous adventurers of our youth, there will always be a part of our make-up that is interested in space, and science, and the stars.  Perhaps it would be impossible to fully recreate the conditions that made the early astronauts celebrity-heroes in those innocent days, but wouldn’t it nevertheless be valuable to give the current generation of young people role models who are smart, well-educated, selfless, and brave, and encourage those young people to dream about discovery and scientific advancement?

The technological legacy of the Apollo program is impressive, but I think the real legacy is aspirational — something that touched us deeply and leaves even 60-somethings like me still keenly interested in space and hoping that one day, perhaps, I’ll follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps and be able to visit the Moon.  The real legacy tells you something about the power of a dream.  We should give the children of today, and tomorrow, the chance to experience such dreams again.

Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

Selfie Psychosis

We are learning more and more about people who have a “selfie” obsession.  We know that people taking selfies are at greater risk of having serious, and even fatal, accidents because they are oblivious to their surroundings while they are taking pictures of themselves on streets or, say, at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  We’ve also seen evidence that people who take selfies are so self-absorbed that they don’t show the decency and sensitivity you typically would expect from a fellow human being.

Woman taking a selfieNow new research is indicating what seems like a pretty obvious conclusion:  people who take selfies are more likely to undergo plastic surgery.  The connection is even stronger if the selfies are taken with filters, or if the posters regularly take down selfie postings that they later conclude aren’t very flattering.  Cosmetic surgeons are reporting that members of the selfie crowd are coming to their offices with selfies where the features have been digitally altered and asked the doctor to change their appearance to match the altered image.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, that people who take selfies are narcissistic and are interested in changing their appearance to try to reach their own definition of personal perfection.  After all, if you spend your time constantly looking at your own pouting face, you’re bound to notice a few imperfections to be cleaned up.  The selfie-obsessed also tend to compare their selfies with the countless other selfies that appear on social media feeds and find their looks wanting.

As one of the plastic surgeons quoted in the article linked above notes, that’s not healthy behavior.  It’s the kind of behavior that those of us who don’t take selfies, and indeed don’t particularly like to have their photos taken at all, just can’t understand.

But we’ll have to, because the selfie epidemic seems to be getting worse, not better.  Researchers estimate that 650 million selfies are posted every day on social media.  That’s a lot of potential plastic surgery.