Human Touch or iTouch

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“What would you think if a robot showed up with your food?”

By Kenneth Murphy*

“What would you think if a robot showed up with your food?” This is the question I asked Ross and Kelly, a young couple in a Newark, New Jersey airport restaurant. “Oh, interesting,” answered an intrigued Kelly. “No thanks,” disagreed Ross, “you would miss the human touch.”

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Not the best way to start a conversation, but I needed to ask my fellow diners about the elephant in the room. Instead of being greeted by a waiter or waitress, we were being stared up at by cold, impersonal iPads bolted to the center of the table between the flowers and candle. If we wanted food, we needed to press the home button and ask Mr. iPad for the specials.

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“Instead of being greeted by a waiter or waitress, we were being stared up at by cold, impersonal iPads bolted to the center of the table”

“I-pay for human help not i-Help,” I joked, while leaving in search for a human staffed establishment. To my dismay each and every restaurant in Newark concourse C was staffed by iPad iWaiters. This reminded me of a book titled Return to Order, in which the author John Horvat shows how the human touch in economy calls for a “deal directly with someone” rule that could not be followed today.(1)

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“To my dismay each and every restaurant in Newark concourse C was staffed by iPad iWaiters.”

After deciding on a sub sandwich stand, I approached the still (but probably not for long) human cashier attendant and asked, “I already know what I want. May I skip the iPads and just talk to you?” “Unfortunately not!” was her reply. She was actually prohibited from taking food orders directly even though she used to do so a few weeks before. Now she only collects cash payments and insures the right person gets the right sandwich.

With no other option I placed my order on the iPad. A small printer underneath spat out a paper slip listing the cost, order number, and directions to return back to the lady for cash payments. When my cheese steak sub and potato salad arrived I shared my fears with her that eventually we’ll be getting our food robotically delivered. “I hope not. That’s when I lose my job and the machines take over,” she sighed.

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“With no other option I placed my order on the iPad.”

I returned to the diner to check how the young couple was getting along. Thankfully a human had delivered their food and I asked them how the iOrdering went. “I ordered both meals on my iPad,” said Ross, “but it wanted me to pay right away and it wouldn’t take my card.” “We couldn’t find out what the ingredients were,” added a now less enthusiastic Kelly.

No Thank You!

Transactions today are increasingly impersonal: Need money? Go to an ATM. Need gas? Pay at the pump. Flying with bags? Self check-in. Buying food? Self-pay checkout. Have a question? Call the robotic customer service. Eating out? Order on the iPad. Some might save the customer time, but are designed to save companies money.

Thankfully however, people are reacting against the automation (even if time is saved) precisely because of its lack of humanity. When Starwood Hotels experimented with “virtual smartphone keys” many hotel guests reported back that they missed going to the front desk. After their travel, hotel guests wanted a smile and a “have a good night!” Guests using their phones to enter their rooms saved time but cost the comfort of being welcomed.(2)

But will businesses listen to their customers? Micah Solomon of Forbes says few Subscription7.2-300x300 Human Touch or iTouchcompanies can afford not to listen because customers now want warmth, personalization and humanity more than just efficiency.(3) A January 2015 The Sydney Morning Herald article also prophesies that “there will be a renaissance of demand for organic human labor in the same way we are seeing people no longer want processed foods or mass-produced fashion. If we automate all basic tasks then we could ultimately lose the intangible benefit of the ‘personal touch’.”(4)

So we humans need more than speed and fast service. As Mr. Horvat proves in Return to Order, when our economic transactions lose the human element they also lose the warm personal bonds that are so essential for trust, kindness, gratitude, and comfort.(5) Whether we are going to eat or sleep, robots, automation and virtual assistance will never be able to replace the charitable human touch.

1 I recommend John Horvat’s “Eight Things You Can Do to Restore the Missing Human Element in Economy” at

  • ithakavi

    Ironically, all those people demanding a ‘living wage’ for entry-level service employees are responsible for the replacement of those employees with robots. Businessmen are not stupid. If a waitress wishes to price herself out of the job market the employers will do the rational thing – replace them with durable electronic devices that are never late, never complain, never insult customers, and never steal. Now someone please explain this concept to Peter Cardinal Turkson, who seems never to have learned anything useful in his life.

    • schm0e

      It’s not that simplistic. People could offer to work for free and still be a greater liability to an employer than a machine.

      • ithakavi

        If that were so, there wouldn’t have been a job to begin with. Free labor costs nothing. The cheapest machine costs something. Nothing is always cheaper than something.

        My point is that the premise of the ‘living wage’ argument is false. There is no reason why every working person is ‘worth’ a wage that is sufficient to house, clothe, and feed that person. That was not true of my first jobs as an agricultural laborer and as a dishwasher when I was in high school. Had I been forced to try to support myself at ages 14-18 I would have starved to death on what I was paid. But I learned important job skills (mostly showing up on time and providing an honest day’s work). Now people are demanding as a ‘right’ that a burger-flipper be paid a wage sufficient to support him/herself plus a family. Life does not work like that. At some point the marginal value of the labor will not support the marginal cost of the wage and the burger-flipper inevitably gets replaced with a robot or the business simply disappears or moves elsewhere. Nevertheless, people who should know better (e.g., Cardinal Turkson) demand that reality take a back seat to fantasy.

        • fergalf

          I think the idea of living wage is crazy for younger people especially students is crazy but I see some merit for older people with families. Although if it just makes younger people more employable then older people it will have failed.

          • ithakavi

            “Living wage” legislation will simply increase unemployment of the marginally employed. You cannot force an employer to pay a marginal cost in excess of a marginal benefit. It doesn’t work for raw materials and it doesn’t work for labor. For some reason people (and that includes Popes) do not want to understand that labor is a commodity just like wood or coal or oil or PVC pipe. When governments forget that, they wind up doing incredibly stupid things – look at Venezuela.

    • fergalf

      I have heard you see the effects of the living wage concept in places like Sweden. Everything is automated. Although it should be noted that a living wage or minimum wage is not legally obligatory in Sweden.

      • ithakavi

        If we really wanted to improve peoples’ lives, the legal minimum wage would be zero. But in reality, we don’t want to improve peoples’ lives – we just want to make ourselves feel virtuous. No ‘Social Encyclical’ issued by any Pope (Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si – without exception) demonstrates even an elementary understanding of economics. Even Benedict XVI (whom I admire more than any man alive) made mistakes that a moderately intelligent high school student with a basic grasp of the subject matter would laugh at.

  • jrj90620

    Not sure if you’re right on this.I think those waiters act phony,expecting a larger tip.Do they really care about the customer?Probably not.Why should they?

  • Mary C-J

    On a similar note, I was (unfortunately) listening to NPR on the radio. They had a review of a book about how actually being human might help in jobs of the “future” as opposed to all the robots/computer the powers that be are promoting. The author was promoting the need for feelings and compassion in the future jobs. What he was actually gushing over was more feminization of workplace and the actual destruction of physically doing a job. That’s where we are headed.

  • schm0e

    McLuhan covers this. 50 years ago he wrote that information technology would cause then-ordinary goods and services to become objects of nostalgia or boutique items (witness the growing preference for handmade items over mass-produced, as cited in the piece).

    However, large, institutional operators are not structured to operate that way. Perhaps private enterprise adapts and rescales, but the one ever-growing entity – the secular state – will never accommodate the need for the human touch.

    Furthermore, while information technology may appear to foster the rescaling of commerce to the local (tribal) level by allowing one to, say, share a ride or buy an article of craft, it in fact consolidated the means of commerce into ever-decreasing and ever-larger hands.