They Say the New Delivery Service Is a Robot…But of course there is a human (many, possibly) in the loop
Growing up, I enjoyed coming home after school to watch Lost in Space. The robot’s staccato “Danger Will Robinson Danger” can, even now, crawl up from my subconscious. It helped encourage my imagination as to what robots might become.
Sadly, in some ways, the show was more prescient than we knew.
The Lost in Space robot, “B-9” was a metallic suit worn and manipulated by actor Bob May (1939–2009). He succeeded in giving the impression of an autonomously intelligent machine.
A new wave of robots deployed for security, delivery, and other tasks function in the same way. But we may be less aware of that fact today:
Across industries, engineers are building atop work done a generation ago by designers of military drones. Whether it’s terrestrial delivery robots, flying delivery drones, office-patrolling security robots, inventory-checking robots in grocery stores or remotely piloted cars and trucks, the machines that were supposed to revolutionize everything by operating autonomously turn out to require, at the very least, humans minding them from afar.Christopher Mims, “The Next Hot Job: Pretending to Be a Robot” at Wall Street Journal
Somewhere, today’s Bob Mays are still driving our robots. But, unlike the iconic actor, they do not have PR agencies to tout their individual talents.
While Mims frames this development as an opportunity and a new job field, his story raises questions about we’re being sold about our fellow human beings. Postmates, for example, announced last December that it would commission a delivery robot named “Serve.” Their CEO and co-founder, Bastian Lehmann, announced:
We realized we are in a unique position to create an autonomous delivery vehicle with socially aware navigation that understands how to navigate cities while meeting specific customer needs…We took a design-first approach with Serve that walks alongside people and fits into our communities. We were able to use data to model how food and goods could move around cities even more efficiently when rovers join our existing fleet of more than 350,000 Postmates. Ultimately, we believe that goods should move through cities at nearly zero cost to consumers.Postmates News Release, “Postmates Unveils Latest Addition To Its Fleet: Meet Serve – The Autonomous Delivery Rover” at Cision
But, as Mims reports, the Serve robots are not as autonomous as they seem:
Postmates, which in mid-August received a permit to operate its Serve delivery robot in San Francisco and is already testing it for food delivery in Los Angeles, employs a growing team of “pilots” to remotely oversee, and at times steer, these four-wheeled food ferries. ‘We will probably see a drastic increase in our workforce over the next five years,’ says Postmates Chief Executive Bastian Lehman.Christopher Mims, “The Next Hot Job: Pretending to Be a Robot” at Wall Street Journal
Nor is Postmates alone. “Nearly all companies using ‘autonomous’ robots have to depend on what the head of Postmates’ technology skunkworks, Ali Kashani, calls the 1-to-N ratio—N being the number of robots a single human can handle.” (Mims, Wall Street Journal)
It contributes to a rosy jobs picture but it also exposes the “wizard” behind the AI curtain.
As we learned with Alexa, Siri, and the other voice assistants, our privacy is invaded by these not-so-magic tools. And, while Alexa only caught word of what we were doing, who knows what a remote driver could report?
Companies are apt to bury honest information about what their tools do and how they do it because many media accept their gushing news releases with little skepticism. Few seem to want to know much about the hidden humans making the system work. So we need to be much more skeptical of supposed autonomous systems. Because, as Postmates admits (with unintentional irony): “Nothing about Serve’s intelligence is artificial.”
More on the people who (really) bring you the robots:
“Artificial ”artificial intelligence What happens when AI needs a human I? (Jonathan Bartlett)
The Top Ten AI Hype stories updated with 2019 information