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I Have Seen the Future, and It Is Automated

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Decades ago, there was a terrific restaurant in NYC with no waiters: the Horn & Hardart Automat.

All the food was displayed behind glass windows. To order, you inserted your bills and coins in a slot, pushed a button, removed your sandwich or pie, and put it on your tray — no waiting, no being ignored by busy wait staff, no tipping.

Now, automation and self-service are returning with a vengeance:

** In LA, you can buy medical marijuana from a vending machine if you have a magnetic card authorizing you to do so.

** Expensive consumer electronics, including cell phones and iPods, can also be purchased from vending machines, eliminating the need to go to Best Buy or Radio Shack.

** At my local supermarket, there is now a self-service line with no cashier or clerk to ring up your items or pack your groceries.

“Are we coming to a day and age when we will never have to interact with another person ever again?” asks NYC radio personality Elvis Duran.

Of course, there are cons as well as pros to automation and self service. When buying consumer electronics, you can’t haggle over the price with a vending machine or robot.

Presumably, you get less service with self service (inherent in the term “self service”).

You also deny yourself the expert advice and help of knowledgeable salespeople, such as the do-it-yourself tips you might get from the older clerk in a good neighborhood hardware store.

But even that kind of expert advice may soon be computerized: in France, they are developing a PC software program that can substitute for a live psychotherapist.

Beta versions have received high marks from both patients and professionals alike.

Is there any of us who isn’t at risk of becoming obsolete and replaced by a machine sooner or later?

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