How Much?

hatch'sThere is a lovely fish market called Hatch’s next to where we are staying on vacation in Cape Cod. There is always a queue of people inside buying from the many different kinds of fish on sale. Three of us went in there the other day to buy some fish for a planned BBQ and looked at each other blankly when confronted with the fish counter – we were clueless. We admitted to each other that we had never bought fish from a fishmonger before. K said she just went and selected fish from the cooler fridge in the supermarket. R simply shrugged and I said I had never bought fish in my life – being allergic to it. We watched the other customers pointing at various fish and making purchases. I watched one woman being handed a big bag and the fishmonger saying “that will be 87 dollars.” I gulped, wondering how was it that fish could cost so much.

Then our turn came. R pointed at the mussels and muttered something like a pound or a pint. The sales assistant helpfully showed us an amount and we all just nodded. Then K asked for some cod. The man asked us how much? We answered in unison, “enough for three?” The man took a huge slab and showed it to us and we all nodded together again. In the end, it turned out to be enough for 10 people!

The next day I went to buy some salt water taffy fudge in an old fashioned candy store and the sales assistant asked me if I wanted a pound? That seemed an awful lot so I replied half a pound – which turned out to still be a lot.

A couple of generations ago everyone went to the greengrocers, fishmongers, butchers and bakers and knew precisely how much and in what units to buy – be it apples, sausages, eggs, bread, milk or sherbet lemons. How we buy has been transformed in the era of supermarkets and online shopping – where we simply look and select pre-packaged food. Some may read the quantity on the label but most just select a shape and check the price.

It is not just the way we shop that has changed it is also many other aspects of how we go about our daily lives. An article in the magazine, TechCrunch, published this week by Rajat Suri discusses how software is transforming how we live, from fine dining to driving cars. He points out how there is “an entirely new consumer-facing software layer of apps and services being deployed as we speak”. Tablets are now appearing on tables in restaurants that diners can select their meals from and no doubt will soon recommend to the diner what they would like to order, thereby obviating the procrastination that wastes waiters’ time when coming to a table to take an order from a party who have not decided. The smart dining software could check, too, the nutrition and calories of the ordered dish which in the background could be uploaded to the diner’s latest healthy living smartphone app. Other vital statistics might then pop up to amuse the diner such as how many people have eaten that dish today, how many are left in that restaurant (thereby removing the disappointment when the waiter returns and says “I am sorry we have run out of that dish.”). Who needs to interact ever again with a surly waiter or a fussy diner?

smileyBut perhaps the scariest idea about smart dining software is to use it “in real time to optimize operational processes like waiter steps of service”. Instead of being able to linger and chat with customers or be assigned to their favourite tables, waiters will be monitored by smart software that will learn and then schedule the most efficient way of getting food to the table with the minimum number of waiter steps, eliminating any unnecessary deviations from the optimal path for the restaurant. Now, that really takes the biscuit out of AI and big data.

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