Bernard Ginns: On smartphone apps, artificial intelligence and Ben Stiller’s midlife crisis

IN JAPANESE, Wagamama means naughty child.

It is also the name of a popular Asian-style restaurant chain that I have visited numerous times since its launch in Bloomsbury in the early 90s.

I returned again on Sunday night to the branch at Trinity Leeds shopping centre before going to see the actor Ben Stiller’s new film, While We’re Young (an amusing comic drama about age and fidelity set in Brooklyn) at the Everyman cinema.

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After taking our orders for curry and ramen, our waitress asked if we had smartphones and proceeded to tell us about an exciting new app that Wagamama has launched in partnership with Mastercard. Qkr! promises to bring a more convenient, quicker and fuss-free way for customers to pay for their meals via an app on their phone. It claims to offer convenience - users can pay as soon as they wish and can easily split bills with friends - as well as simplicity and security.

Scott Abrahams, group head of acceptance and emerging payments at MasterCard UK&I, said: “MasterCard is always striving to improve payment convenience and choice for consumers.

“Working with and listening to businesses like Wagamama helps us design new secure payment options for consumers which meet the needs of their changing lifestyles. The benefits of this app aren’t exclusive or unique to Wagamama’s customers and we are working with multiple restaurants and retailers so they can offer this payment option to their customers too.”

Richard Tallboy, director of business development at Wagamama, said: “We know that the biggest area of feedback from restaurant customers is related to the speed and convenience of payment.

“The Qkr! with MasterPass payment app provides us with a great solution, allowing customers to control when they want to pay through a simple and secure download app.”

Like many apps, Qkr! uses technology to replace a function previously performed by a human being. Instead of waving your hand in the air and motioning the signing of a bill in the internationally understood way, you simply press a button to complete the transaction, cutting out the need to attract the attention of the waiter or waitress and then waiting for the bill.

It would not be a big step to expand this to ordering food and drinks as well. Delivery could easily be automated too - witness Yo! Sushi with its conveyer belts and Amazon with its experimental drone service - cutting out humans entirely.

I love technology, but wonder where it will end and what the relentless march of progress means for the future of humankind, particularly with the creation of machines that can think. The British scientist Stephen Hawking has expressed fears that the development of full AI could spell the end of the human race.

Elon Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, has described AI as our biggest existential threat and called for some regulatory oversight “just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish”.

Catching up with the weekend newspapers yesterday, I read the Breakfast with the FT interview with Ray Kurzweil, a pre-eminent thinker on AI who is famous for predicting the ubiquity of the internet and the rise of mobile devices.

Silicon Valley no longer sees death as inevitable but the latest evil to be disrupted, the article opined. Mr Kurzweil, who is based in San Francisco, believes the biotechnology revolution will reprogramme our inherited biology and molecular nanotechnology will enable us to rebuild our bodies.

“Humans have an opportunity to transcend beyond natural limitations,” he said.

Maybe so, but aren’t those natural limitations what define us as human beings and make Ben Stiller films about midlife crises so funny? A world in which everyone lived forever - or those who could afford it - would be a very dull place.