Picture this, an awkward cone shaped robot purrs down the sidewalk of a suburban neighborhood. As it goes, it sloppily spits packages and mail into people's driveways. It looks clumsy, slow, and like its trying really hard to complete a simple task. It is almost frustrating to watch.
However, the robot is a company's dream. It can work non-stop hours, requires no health insurance plans, vacation time, subsidized maternity/paternity leave time, and after years of perfecting the design, manufacturing and repairing these robots will only get cheaper.
For these reasons, a number of companies have already began experimenting with robot delivery systems (Amazon, Google, Boston Dynamics, UPS, Walmart, just to name a few). A Menlo Park startup called Matternet has been implementing drone deliveries of medical supplies since 2011 in countries around the world including Haiti, Switzerland, and the Dominican Republic. More recently, the company has begun to implement these technologies in hospitals at home by transporting medical supplies to customers or other hospitals via drone delivery. Matternat’s drones are capable of flying with packages up to 2.2 pounds for about ten miles. The drones fly at a speed of 40 mph and a ten mile flight should take about 18 minutes. They can take off of the hospital roof and land on another roof without the recipient present. Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet said, “‘It’s much more cost-, energy- and time-efficient to send [a blood sample] via drone, rather than send it in a two-ton car down the highway with a person inside to bring it to a different lab for testing,’” (www.wfmz.com). In the case of a mechanical failure during flight, a parachute deploys from the drone. The drones are programmed to avoid restricted airspaces like airports and government buildings as well as areas of high population density like schools and public squares. “‘We believe the value of new technology is most valuable where it is clearly needed,’” Evans said. “‘That’s why we wanted to focus on drones delivering medicine and not delivering pizzas’”(www.wfmz.com).
At this point, it seems almost inevitable that drone deliveries will one day be implemented on a large scale. However, most of these robots are tested in isolated environments cordoned off from humans and there is no way to know what will happen when robots hit the streets. Workers who feel their jobs are being threatened and pranksters may be inclined to vandalize or steal packages from the robot.
However, we do have some early indicators of what human and robot integration might be like - and it's not so good. Since launching its first prototype delivery robot three years ago robot company Knightscope, has had three bullying incidents. In 2014, a person attempted to “tackle a Knightscope delivery robot” and last year, in Los Angeles, a group of people tried to “spray paint [a Knightscope] robot which sensed the paint and sounded an alarm, alerting local security and the company's engineers.” The most extreme case occurred in 2014 when two Canadian engineers conducted a social experiment by sending a robot across Canada and into the United States. When the robot reached Philadelphia, the experiment came to a halt after the academics lost contact with the robot which they later found “abandoned on the roadside with its arms ripped off” (www.wfmz.com).
As robots begin to dominate our streets in larger numbers, I think the abuse will continue. Self driving cars are another big question mark. They are covered with cameras and sensors. If people know they can cut off or pass a self driving car and face no repercussions because they are certain the other car will stop, how will this change the way people drive?
Like integrations of the past, it seems likely that robots will face abuse. While they have the potential to make our lives cheaper and safer, it is likely that some people will greet their serendipity with wrath.