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How I learned to stop worrying and love the avatar

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that was either about transparency at the Port Authority or the avatars it planned to install at its three major metropolitan airports. Or maybe it was about nothing, like most of the posts on this site.

The hologram to help you find your way, should you get turned around in JFK. (Please note, caption is in iambic pentameter.)

Anyway, the avatar has started work at Newark. Her name is Libby, which is short for "liberty"; I wonder if life and prosperity will have avatars at the other airports. I think it would be great, for instance, if there were a Prospero avatar looking like the character from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Imagine how much fun it would be to watch groups of lost travelers who accidentally wander too close, only to be greeted with:

"These three have robb'd me, and this demi-devil —
For he's a bastard one — had plotted with them
To take my life. Two of these fellows you
Must know and own; this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine."

I digress. I haven't made it to the airport yet to see Libby in action; if it didn't require the purchase of a plane ticket or the ability to defeat security at Newark, I'd be writing this from there as we speak. But apparently, the employees aren't too thrilled about their co-worker, according to a guest column in today's Star-Ledger written by a baggage handler who gripes about poor pay while he's doing heavy lifting in front of an expensive hologram that can only play recorded messages when it detects people nearby, as opposed to any kind of interaction. The author, Robert Harrell, summarizes it so:

The lesson, as far as I can tell, is not that we need shiny new machines, robots or avatars to do work best suited to humans. I believe the airports need to invest in the workers who keep the airport running every day. Make our jobs good jobs, with the best training, good pay and good benefits.

That's crazy talk, and I hope readers recognize it for the nice bit of satire that it is. First of all, as anyone who has ever tried to buy concert tickets, make a credit card payment or check the status of a flight over the phone, automated systems are much more efficient than people, who would probably laugh at you when you tried to place an order for four tickets to see the Jonas Brothers, and call you names while they processed payment.

Second of all, the Port Authority has, in my opinion, been using avatars for YEARS, without anyone noticing. You know when you ask a tollbooth attendant at the George Washington Bridge a question, like "How can a bridge with 14 lanes move with less agility than a legless kangaroo?," and you're greeted with a vacant, dead stare? Avatar. Heck, for years they were using people to build the high-rise at One World Trade, and it was barely a hole in the ground. Now that the agency has avatar capability, suddenly they're adding a floor a week. I don't see a coincidence.

It's about time we embrace this sort of technology, instead of being afraid of the astronomical costs, the unavoidable technological problems and the fact that machines will be replacing humans in the work force, and if a few baggage handlers can't get their minds around that, too bad.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my editor just asked to see me in her office. Something about an upgrade.

I'm even more irreverent on Twitter @joe_arney.

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