Superhuman? I’ll Settle for Consistent Competence

Ah, holidays. Rest and relaxation. Kick back and unwind. Once you’ve got through the horror of the airport that is.

Most of us are happy to accept a little extra delay as a cost of additional safety. It may add very little real security, as a number of critics have pointed out, but it at least gives the impression of an effort being made.

Where that effort is less in evidence is the check-in process. As someone who travels regularly for business I’m used to sailing through with my hand luggage and electronic (either online or kiosk) check-in.

Checking the family in this summer was a somewhat different affair: unlabelled and mislabelled desks, hour-plus queues in place before check-in opened, total confusion amongst staff and passengers alike.

It’s hard to ascribe responsibility between the airport, the airline we booked through, the airline operating the flight, or the outsourced check-in staff. Whoever it was won’t screw up like this every day. But as I wend my way through airports with my little bag I witness others waiting in similar lines around the world.

It’s a reminder that for all our sophistication we are still prone to fairly frequent screw ups. And the cost of these screw-ups is enormous. Unnecessary stress, wasted time, and a simple economic drag: the two hundred people on our flight who instead of spending money in duty free and the airport’s restaurants had to grab a bottle of water and head straight to their gate.

Some people don’t like the idea of letting machines address some of these problems. Optimising our lives. They worry it risks diminishing choice and serendipity. Certainly I wouldn’t want a machine planning my route as I ambled around a pretty Catalonian town on my holiday. The only guide I accepted was a human one, albeit through a digital medium: Trip Advisor.

But in places where I have little choice, like airports, I want the experience to be as smooth as possible.

Much of the talk about tomorrow’s technology, from me as much as anyone, is about how it makes us super-human, augmenting our senses, mental powers and physical capabilities. But sometimes I would settle for them delivering a more consistent level of competence.

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Tom Cheesewright