Geoffrey the Cute Pink Robot Pushed Off the Streets of Toronto

The disability community worried they endanger safety and accessibility.

Tiny Mile on the Waterfront

Tiny Mile

Geoffrey is a cute 10-pound delivery vehicle developed by Ignacio Tartavull and Gellert Mattyus of Tiny Mile. It's not really a robot; it actually is a cyborg: "a combination of a living organism and a machine," piloted remotely by a human using a computer and a joystick. Omar Elawi of Tiny Mile, who was behind the wheel when we first wrote about it, told Treehugger at the time: "Right now, mostly young people with a history of gaming, who are comfortable navigating the streets on a screen with a joystick. But we are trying to push the idea of jobs for disabled people who could work from home."

But now the city of Toronto has banned what it calls "micro-utility devices" from the sidewalks and bike lanes after complaints from the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee and the non-partisan Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA). The latter writes that "disability community advocates have called for robots to be banned from sidewalks because they endanger safety and accessibility for people with disabilities, seniors, children and others."

“We applaud Toronto City Council for stopping the creation of a serious new disability barrier and for requiring City staff to consult with people with disabilities as well as law enforcement and public safety experts about the dangers that robots on sidewalks pose for the public,” said David Lepofsky, chair of AODA.

Geoffrey was not autonomous and had a driver, but the AODA notes this is still a problem: "It’s no solution to require robots to have a remote driver. That cannot be policed. One can’t know from looking at a robot whether it has a remote driver somewhere at all, much less a sober one who is properly trained and attentive to steering."

The AODA says it is not against innovation. “We don’t oppose innovation. We innovate daily in our lives and use cutting-edge innovative technology,” said Lepofsky. “We only oppose innovations that endanger people with disabilities, seniors, children and others.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory says he is not against innovation either. "I can’t go around doing all the boasting I do about all the smart people, and the great tech ecosystem and why this is a great place for people to invest and create jobs, especially for innovative tech companies, and then say that we’re not going to welcome innovation,” Tory said, reports The Robot Report. “But at the same time, it can’t just be a free-for-all."

Tiny Mile Robots

Tiny Mile

Tartavull, CEO of Tiny Miles, calls this "upsetting news" and notes in a LinkedIn post: "[City Councillor ] Kristyn Wong-Tam has been saying that the two biggest challenges the city has is covid-19 and climate change. Despite that, she wants to ban our devices which produce no emissions and offer contactless delivery. How is that responsible?"

This Treehugger has mixed feelings about this. I have complained previously that robots are stealing our sidewalks and sidewalks are for people so we shouldn't let robots steal them. But I had a soft spot in my heart for Geoffrey, noting that it has a human driver who should be able to avoid people on the street, defer to them, and even perhaps say "excuse me" or like a true Canadian, "sorry."

If it was a human carrying a dinner, nobody would think twice. It's also tiny and slow compared to American or Estonian robots. It is more environmentally friendly: As Tartavull told the CBC, "A few years from now it's going to sound ridiculous that we use a car to carry a burrito."

Tiny Mile in Toronto

Tiny Mile

In the end, I concluded:

"So Geoffrey is cute, it's tiny, and perhaps I am giving it the benefit of the doubt because it has roots in the university where I teach. But it also might not be a robot or a cyborg but instead, a Trojan Horse, clearing the way and desensitizing us for bigger, faster, fully autonomous robot delivery vehicles, We have seen this movie before, when the cars pushed us out of the roads and even took most of the sidewalks."

But now we no longer have to worry about this, because Toronto has banned the bots.