Alice Jones: In a world without people, who will police the robots?


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The Independent Online

I have seen the future. Moreover, I have heard its soundtrack. It's a robotic female voice chiding "Unexpected Item in Bagging Area", laid over a backing track of frantically rustling un-openable plastic bags, dropped coins and screams.

Self-service checkouts are one of the most peculiar banes of 21stcentury living, a technological innovation which makes one pine for the good old days of milksplashed conveyor belts.

Even more peculiar is the news that they have given rise to their own crimewave. Research published this week reveals that a third of 5,000 shoppers surveyed admitted to stealing between the bleeps. Who are these masters of self-possession, who refuse to be terrorised by the laser-eyed cyberwoman who can spot an Unexpected Item at 100 paces - even when there isn't one?

According to the survey, tricks range from the basic "bagging without scanning" to the fiendish "tampering with scales". Tampering with the scales! Who does that?

And how do they get their screwdrivers out without the tutting Londoner in the queue behind punching them for dawdling?

For supermarkets, the financial implications of this machine-assisted shoplifting are clear. Add up all the bagged salad and crisps being pilfered and you could keep hundreds of checkout staff in wages for a year. So it's an innovation brought in to save time and money which apparently does neither.

Boris Johnson has now promised to cut ticket prices on the London Underground by introducing driverless Tube trains within the decade. Carriages will be overseen by "train captains" instead. It's another plan to streamline "services" by removing "people". Except, of course, it is people - messy, flawed, stupid human beings - who use the services. And when these services go wrong, as they inevitably will, other human beings - checkout supervisors and captains - are needed to come along and sort it all out. And so the whole strange cycle continues.

We were once disparaged as a nation of shopkeepers. Better that, perhaps, than a nation of harried robot minders.

It has started to get a bit silly. Or fjollet, as they say in Copenhagen. With the advent of The Bridge on BBC4, the UK's obsession with Scandi murk has reached new heights. Saga Noren now joins Sarah Lund, Lisbeth Salander, Birgitte Nyborg and Kurt Wallander on the list of washedout, cerebral characters in more or less chunky knitwear who have taken over Saturday nights.

There are more to come. Last week the Radio Times put Saga Noren, pictured, aka Sofia Helin, aka an actress no one had heard of seven days ago, on its cover. She told the magazine: "When I was shooting The Bridge, I counted 13 different Swedish crime productions. It's an explosion, and obviously we are very good at it."

Indeed. And the UK - where mocking Ikea meatballs and Norwegian Eurovision entries used to be a national sport - now laps it up. Perhaps our own "explosion" of structured reality shows like TOWIE and (the now Bafta-nominated) Made in Chelsea, has a similar cult following somewhere in the world. A far-flung corner of Eastern Europe, maybe, where journalists commentate on Caggie Dunlop's pout and style magazines extol Joey Essex's orange UGGs. Or perhaps not.

Chocks away! A study by Skyscanner has revealed the best seat on the plane, or the best in cattle class, anyway. It is (drum roll) Seat 6A. Lovely 6A - with its window of joy, tray table of dreams and seat-back pocket of glory. It is apparently "well positioned for those wanting to disembark the aircraft quickly without being too close to the front toilets. The window is a popular choice for those looking to sleep". This is welcome news indeed. Except that now, of course, everyone else is going to want to sit there. Ryanair must be dreaming up a Seat 6A surcharge as I type.;