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Do ATMs dream of electric money?

Its nearly half a century since the famous American science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick wrote the novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", which went on to become the Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner. (Spoiler alert if you have not seen it).

Today also marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first cash-dispensing ATM (Automated Teller Machine), unveiled in London by Barclays Bank.

You are likely to have seen some of Dick's work; blockbuster movies based on his writing include Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau.

Dick explored philosophical, social, and political themes within plots that featured authoritarian governments, monopolistic industries and parallel universes. It's quite a handy vantage point from which to analyse today's world of global payments.

His views challenged the understanding of intelligence, existence and human interaction with emerging technologies. The plot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep deals with a gradual acceptance of a new reality where automated machines have enough empathy to make them indistinguishable from normal people. Just like the world of online payments, authentication and Identity have become a big issue.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It features a bounty hunter who needs to track down and "retire" life-like androids (partly because they rely on an old flawed operating system known as Nexus-6) who have escaped from their human owners. Our hero is obstructed by the villain (actually a front for a big, sinister corporation) who may have an interest in prolonging the life of this fugitive, obsolete robotic technology.  

It is tempting to draw parallels with today's Fintech-fuelled innovation. A "post-money" world where distributed electronic ledgers of identities and assets can be tracked without the need for anything as quaint as cash is not beyond imagination. But for this to work and for government to function, the new ways to pay will need to be embraced by everyone. The prize for creating this ubiquity is huge. So bounty hunters could make a living from hunting down citizens that refuse to let go of old payment methods. Some parts of society could rebel; perhaps we'll hear of underground societies that revere ATMs that still use actual, real cash. These machines could become fugitives themselves (fair enough - if they rely on an old system known as Windows-XP).

So, back to reality in 2017. Rather like many of the premonitions in the book which was originally set in 1992, predictions for the end of cash are somewhat premature. OK, you are more likely these days to be exposed to existential debates about what is money ("is it fiat or is it crypto?, is it regulated?, what about final settlement..."). And admittedly parts of downtown San Francisco do look a bit post-apocalyptic. But 50 years after the first one appeared, you'll still see lots of ATMs dispensing actual, real cash.

Later editions of Dick's novel were re-located to 2021. Perhaps that's getting closer to the age of true Artificial Intelligence. But my bet is that ATMs will survive for decades beyond that date, despite the best efforts of Fintech bounty hunters.

ATM Girl by Banksy and a Generation Z payment systems user

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