When you first see an automated delivery robot trundling along an uneven sidewalk, stopping to readjust its direction every few meters, and waiting patiently at pedestrian crossings, it can be quite strange. We read a lot about the impending automated future, but being confronted with it first-hand on streets you recognize is odd, almost eerie. If the noises coming from the industry are anything to go by, though, it won’t be long before the streets are awash with little robots on wheels, tirelessly and silently running 24/7 delivery.
The first question I had when seeing an unmanned robot slowly rolling through the streets of London was ‘How long can that possibly be expected to last before it is vandalized, stolen, kicked over, or otherwise damaged?’ Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems only logical that these robots are going to attract attention - some of it unwanted - until people become accustomed to seeing them. They will be equipped with both cameras and secure locking features to prevent theft and discourage vandalism but, with no operator around to protect them, it’s easy to foresee problems.
Other companies are taking to the skies with delivery drones. The likes of Amazon, Google, and UPS are all developing flying bots, though there are huge question marks over how suitable they are for anything other than a rural or suburban environment. It is, for example, undeniably funny when a delivery drone gets stuck in a tree, cannot find anywhere clear to land, or is taken down by an eagle. They’re a headline-grabbing tech almost because of their impracticality, and even a layman can see how an unmanned flying delivery drone is something that will be fraught with complications.
The issue being solved is that of ‘last-mile logistics’ - getting the products from a transportation hub into the actual home. Here, Sidewalk delivery robots offer what Marble co-founder Matt Delaney described as the only ‘sane solution.’ The robots can handle the individual drop-offs, leaving the delivery drivers (or self-driving vans) to make the larger journeys to and from a collection point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the logic; delivery drones or robots will speed up the delivery process and reduce costs for those delivering items. In reality, however, there are important elements of automated delivery that need to be carefully considered.
For one, delivery robots are just one step further down the line of the widespread automation that will see millions of people lose jobs. Doing away with delivery drivers means that companies won’t have to worry about pension pay, sick days, training, wages, or any other costly downsides of human employees. What, exactly, the removal of manual labour jobs means for society as a whole is something for policy-makers and academics to consider. And, ultimately, you get a sense that the companies pushing for automation more generally aren’t really interested in the impact.
The problems run deeper even than this, though. Something the Guardian picked up on was the argument that to fill sidewalks with delivery drones is to take control of public space without proper negotiation, to have pedestrians share the sidewalk with multiple corporations’ fleets of robots. Walk San Francisco’s Nicole Ferrara said: ‘We really see this as a privatization of the public right of way.’ Similarly, University of New Mexico professor Renia Ehrenfeucht said: ‘If there really were hundreds of little robots, they would stop functioning as sidewalks and start functioning more as bike lanes. They would stop being spaces that are available for playing games or sitting down.’
To assume that urbanites are calling out for further automation of their environment is to miss the point of living in an urban area altogether. As Ferrera goes on to say, ‘people live in urban centers not because they want to sit at home in their house and have their toothbrush delivered to their door, but because they have a pharmacy around the corner that they can walk to.’ Just a small amount of human interaction in a transaction with a company can do an incredible amount for perceived quality of customer service. Just imagine, for example, how much more frustrated a customer would be if their package was lost thanks to an AI malfunction or a delivery drone theft than by human error.
What the development comes down to, then, is companies looking to slash costs by negating the need for delivery staff. Shareholders will welcome the progress, but it’s always important to think of both the potential logistical problems as well as the impact on society before embracing a new tech with open arms. The armada of delivery robots is coming, let’s just hope it doesn’t affect jobs, the streets, or the quality of service as much as some fear it might.