Automation: DC Residents Now Share Sidewalks with Food Delivery Robots
March 12, 2017, 01:29 PM
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Robot food delivery in the neighborhood has been chatted up on the news as the cool new tech thing about to happen, being tested and now it’s here.

The robots are doing the deliveries, although human minders will accompany the machines for now.

The little robots scooting along the sidewalk look pleasantly futuristic, but the rapid entry of automation into non-manufacturing uses over the last little while makes the long-term future of some low-skilled jobs appear rather grim. Pizza delivery driver has been the sort of part-time job that’s perfect for students, but that employment option looks to be on the way out.

Delivery person is not a huge employment category, but it is like other areas of small job losses from automation that add up, like hardware store helper, meatpacking worker, bricklayer, golf caddy, oil field roughneck, coffee barista, Amazon grocery store worker, fast food cashier, hotel bellhop, security guard, hotel phone operators and many other blue-collar jobs. (White-collar employment is threatened also.)

The Gartner consulting firm forecast that one-third of US jobs will be done by robots or computers by 2025 is looking more likely as the automating process speeds up with increasingly capable technology. Forrester Research Inc. has a more optimistic view, that there will be a net job loss of 7 percent by 2025 from automation, but that’s still a serious deficit when more jobs are needed as population increases. Furthermore, Oxford researchers forecast in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs were vulnerable to tech replacement within 20 years. The pessimistic view comes from Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi, who warns of a dystopian future in 30 years when humans become largely obsolete and world joblessness stands at 50 percent.

Right now, it’s great that President Trump has convinced some companies to bring their businesses back to the United States, but the resulting number of jobs may be disappointing because of automation. Reshoring has been happening already anyway, because US labor costs don’t matter that much when machines are doing most of the work. So we’ll see how Trump’s jobs plan goes.

For the long term though, the future is automated, and the political class needs to wake up and smell the software. At the least, Washington should reduce immigration radically, more than just the 50 percent cut proposed by Senator Cotton.

Automation, robots and computers make importing foreign labor obsolete, and the quaint practice of immigration should be shelved along with homesteading and stagecoaches.

Anyway, here’s more about the DC delivery robots from a couple days ago.

Food Delivery Robots Officially Roll Out In DC Today, Washingtonian, March 9, 2017

The first fleet of delivery robots officially rolls out in DC today after two weeks of testing. Starship Technologies teamed up with San Francisco-based delivery company Postmates for the launch, the first in the US.

Initially a group of around 20 bots will make short deliveries—mostly under a mile—in the Georgetown and 14th Street corridor, with more neighborhoods to come in the near future. The autonomous coolers-on-wheels essentially act like any Postmates delivery service. An app user orders, say, items from a nearby convenience store. The vendor is notified, and a robot is dispatched from one of several hubs. Goods are placed in a temperature-controlled bag in the bot’s sealed compartment, which can only be unlocked with a code that’s sent to the customer. The robot then makes its way to the destination, and voila, that $10 order of snacks and soda is that much more awesome.

Postmates makes over 2 million deliveries a month nationwide using a fleet of cars, bikes, scooters, and average humans on foot. The latter is what stands to be eventually replaced by robots—next in Redwood City, California, and eventually in every city Postmates operates.

“If you’re ordering a convenience item from a couple of blocks away, it’s not worth paying a delivery fee,” says Russell Cook, senior vice president of operations at Postmates. “What we see with the robots in the future is being able to drive down the cost of those deliveries around 80 to 90 percent, and open a whole new class of commerce in the city.”

The delivery robots, which run exclusively on sidewalks, also hold environmental promise since they run on clean energy.

Of course, there are also drawbacks to losing the human touch. The six-wheeled vehicles are equipped with nine cameras, elaborate GPS systems, and ultrasonic sensors on all sides that can track distance and obstacles (much like on a car). They can sense to slow down in crowds, or speed up to 4 miles per hour in the open. Still, Cook says the bots are known to occasionally get held up by tree roots, and are still mastering DC’s many crosswalks that have no timed lights. They’re also only able to hold one delivery at a time, and can’t fit certain items, like an extra-large pizza.

Overall though, the roaming has been smooth—including the special legislation needed to allow the new wheeled vehicles on sidewalks, which the District passed last year. Surprisingly, no one has stolen or tampered with the bots, though they’re heavier and harder to pick up than they look. If and when someone attempts to steal one, an alarm will sound and GPS tracking systems will help with swift recovery. But what about accidental run-ins with joggers and dogs?

“If it sees people coming in close proximity, it stops,” says Cook. “It also has a flag on it, so even though it’s low, it can’t sneak up behind you without you realizing it.”

Currently there’s no way to demand a bot, but if you’re in the right neighborhood and too lazy to walk a few blocks for a sandwich, chances are a Postbot could be at your door.