IT was early evening and, unseasonably for this year's summer, warm.
It felt exactly like the time of day where, were you on holiday, you would begin to head out to read menu boards outside restaurants to decide what to eat. The time of night when creeping and flying things start biting.
I'm trying to say it was early evening. Dusk in a city and there were no people anywhere. Not once. A new petrol station has opened near my house and it is entirely self-serve. Lonely pillars rise from a barren concrete floor, you feed your plastic card into a waiting metal mouth, dispense the petrol, drive off. It's quick, it's easy, it's impersonal. There's no kiosk, no shop staff, nothing.
At the Apple store the other week a staff member showed me a shopping app that allows customer self check-out. The buyer sails in, finds what they want, scans the product using the camera on their phone (or iPad) and the purchase is charged to their credit card. Off they duly pop, having spoken to no-one.
Self-service checkouts in supermarkets have been training us to shop without the inconvenience of human interaction so each new person-free development seems unsurprising, if not a little lonely.
In China they've taken this one step further with a robot restaurant in Harbin, where 18 robots are ready to serve. There's even a dumplingbot and a noodlebot. Diners are welcomed by an usherbot who whirrs out a friendly: "Earth Person, Hello." In Paris, Metro trains have no drivers; in Australia and the US EZPass has done away with toll booth attendants (and spelling).
Now, it's one thing stripping the service industry of its human face. But what of social networking? What of that. Online relationships have long prompted grumblings that face-to-face interaction is at risk. Fret no more. A student from Boston's MIT, Melissa Chow, has developed a jacket, a sort of inflatable gilet, that responds to your friends' "like" clicks on Facebook by giving you a wee squeeze. It "allows us to feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love we feel when we receive hugs," but at a distance, without having to actually partake in any messy person-to-person contact. It's called Like-A-Hug.
Oh, fellow humans, what are we doing? Technology is all very well but let us not replace man with machine. I'm not suggesting we forego engine power for horse, I'm aware the nudge of machine against human has long been a fear (and look how well it worked out for the Luddites) but really, mankind, a hug vest?
By 2050 the world's population is projected to rise from seven billion to between eight and 11 billion. That brings its own woes. But how are we going to operate among all these people if we are living parallel to one another, no need to speak or touch?
I want to give my debit card to a shopgirl and swap chat about the weather. I want to express frustration about the traffic with the guy at the petrol station. Modern life. It's just too much. I need a hug.
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