Gronafdo. Muffordaplens?

"I'd like a fish sandwich, fries and a Diet Coke."Wufflehats deprrrrr.

"Excuse me?"

Wufflerrrsd Pepsi.

"Sure. Pepsi's fine."





Isssrrrfrudke. Toosevfo. Plup.

Another day, another fast-food lane. And another stimulating conversation with a talking speaker.

Where have all the humans gone?

In the grocery store where I shop, a human passes the food over the electronic eye, but then this monotonic computer voice recites the price, gives me the total and drones: "Thank you for shopping with us."

Answering services reward you with a brief encounter with a human secretary before you are connected to "voice mail" - a machine that will take your message. Call a government agency, and you're likely to get a recording: "Touch 1 for public information, Touch 2 for directory service" . . . and so on.

Some automatic teller machines talk to you; others communicate via cryptic messages like: "You're out of funds, dude."

And don't you love the bank drive-in windows that have the sucking tube? You put your check in the container and then you've got to let go real fast, or the tube will pull your arm clean out of its socket. In those banks, you talk to a pole.

The other day I was in the Atlanta airport, where travelers are herded in and out of trams and moving sidewalks with commands that sound like pulses going through a high voltage wire: "Please stand back - please move to the center of the vehicle and away from the doors - this vehicle is leaving the station."

Recently I passed a state park hiking area with a sign that said: "Self-guided tours on tape."

I miss people.

"Fast food" in the '50s, in the town where I grew up, was a drive-in called THE ROOT BEER STAND.

At THE ROOT BEER STAND you would get one of those real skinny hot dogs, always steaming, in a soft warm bun that sort of mooshed up at the end when you took a bite. They were great plain, but I liked one squiggly line of mustard.

When you pulled into THE ROOT BEER STAND, you turned on your headlights to call the carhop. The carhops were all kids we knew - these were high-profile jobs nabbed by lucky, I thought, high school students who knew the owner.

The food came on metal trays that hung on the car window rolled up halfway. There was a piece of soggy terry cloth on the tray to soak up the sweat from the root beer mugs. When you were ready to leave, you turned on your engine and the carhop came out to pick up the tray.

I know what you're thinking. If you want to talk to people, get out of your car and go inside the restaurant.

But it's not the same. The people inside are almost always harried because they are busy being the voice in the box, too.

And what about our kids? What are they missing during the hours in front of the TV, a Nintendo joystick for a playmate? What happens when you always have a piece of high-tech equipment between you and another human?

Maybe they are turning into flesh-and-blood replicas of these numbed-out machines. Dispassionate techie-nerds.

One psychologist says that talking to machines all the time distances us from other humans. When we objectify people, we are much more capable of violence toward them, says Richard Frank. It's easier to hurt a machine than a human.

One possible reason why machines are so cold and distant is because the people who make them are cold and distant, he says. "They don't like people, and they've inculcated their own values into the machine," he says.

But there is an up side to all this, Frank says. Well-conceived machines and programs can have more empathy than people.

"The machine is preferable to a nasty clerk who thinks you are an intrusion, or to a harassed telephone operator who does not want to talk to you."