The Fully Automated Future is Here (and Needs More Work)

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Just did a quick loop through the Berkeley Campus to buy some books at Moe’s and came across two things I hadn’t seen before: a fully automated fast-food place called Eatsa on Telegraph Ave, and the new fully-automated Amazon package pick-up center at the Berkeley student center.

Here’s the automated Amazon package pickup in action:


Here’s the Eatsa automated fast food cafe/dispensary in action:

We’re in an era of trying to build fully-automated everything: self-driving cars and trucks, robot nurses, voice personal assistants, etc. But this fantasy is not new… just watch a few Jetsons episodes or look at old photos of Horn and Hardart automats in Philadelphia and New York City around the turn of the (20th) century.

horn__hardart_automat-1

The automated experiences I saw today (dining, packages) fall short on the two key questions: 1) do they enable breakthrough better economics; and 2) do they make the experience better. But most important, they just felt like they completely lacked imagination and were sterile.

When the Bell System finally replaced human operators with dialing – a major win for automation – they broke an economic bottleneck to making phone service ubiquitous (there was no way human operators could scale). And they arguably helped make the experience better – human operators were nosy, slow, and just not really who you wanted to talk to.

On the other hand, coffee out of vending machines has been available for decades, but you don’t see Starbucks trying to automate its baristas. And they know what they’re doing.

With package delivery, sure, its nice to not have to wait in that long line at the post office, or (I’d imagine) to be able to pick up a package at 3am. But post office boxes have been around for 130 years, always in conjunction with humans who could help you out with a variety of other tasks. Sooner or later Amazon will figure out that it probably makes economic sense not to take every last person out of the equation – to have people staffing these rooms, at least during business hours, to help you get other things done (banking? genius bar?) and upsell you to other products and services.

I’m thumbs down on these two antiseptic set-ups I saw today… try again guys, you’ve taken two fun experiences (getting food and packages) and made them dull and impersonal.

P.S. My moment of Zen afterward… noticing that the Berkeley “Free Speech Cafe,” which mostly sold sugar, caffeine and corn syrup, in fact was actually facilitating some free speech outside (“Big Government Sucks”):

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