Sidewalks Are for People. Should We Let the Robots Steal Them?

© Starship. Starship

They have finally arrived in America: just off the boat from Estonia, these immigrants don't need work visas. They are the Starship Delivery Robots we covered last year, and have now been unleashed on the streets of Washington, DC. According to Maura Judkis of the Washington Post, they are being tested now.

...the next time you place an order on Postmates, there’s a chance that a robot and his friendly handler might appear at your door. It’s as if they’re visitors from the future who traveled back in time to complete an important mission: bringing you a burrito.

They even have a special bylaw that permits them on the sidewalks, but limits their speed to 4 miles an hour and their weight to 50 pounds, and keeps them out of the central business district and away from sensitive locations. When we wrote about it last year, commenters suggested that it would invite vandalism, but according to an earlier article in the Post,

Starship’s machines have 9 cameras, stream live video back to their base, and can easily call for police, or other, backup, [CEO Allan] Martinson said. “We can send other robots in the area. They would come to help the robot in distress,” Martinson said.

No worries about people stealing its lunch, either; it can only be opened with a mobile phone code by the restaurant and the customer.

“Were someone to try to take it or mess with it, it would use its sensors to tell its operator that it’s being messed with,” said [Washington head of operations Nick] Handrick. “It has gyroscopes, so if it gets tilted or tipped or anything, then we actually do have a mic and speaker through it so an operator would be able to speak through the robot.”
red flag in front of car

Man with red flag, as required by law in UK prior to 1896/Public Domain

There are only five robots rolling through Washington right now, and they are still required to have a handler watching them, sort of like the time in London when the Locomotive acts limited cars to 4 MPH and, they had to have a person who "shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop."


Library of Congress/Public Domain

The red flag act was repealed in 1896 and we all know what happened shortly after that: Pedestrians were forced off the roads, anti- "jaywalking" laws were brought in and soon almost all of the rights of way were taken over by cars.

hello robot

© Starship Industries

I, for one, do not welcome our new sidewalk overlords, and suspect that they will take over the sidewalks the way cars took over the roads, that soon a few more feet of pavement might be taken away from pedestrians to provide space for robot lanes, and that once again, pedestrians will get screwed by the new technology. There might well be thousands of them, because it makes so much sense, small, driverless electric vehicles that could deliver all kinds of things, far more energy efficient and safer than drones, and smaller than a Fedex Truck. In Mumbai, 250,000 lunches are delivered every day by dabbawalas; these could become the American version. It could be 1896 all over again, only this time they came for the sidewalks. The market is huge, and is going to drive significant change.

A few years ago, Emily Badger described how the car took some time to dominate our society, quoting Professor Maurie Cohen:

“We tend to focus on the car itself as the central element,” Cohen says, “and we fail to recognize that it’s not just the car.” Like any ubiquitous technology, the car is embedded in a whole social system. In this case, that system includes fuel supply lines, mechanisms for educating and licensing new drivers, companies to insure them, laws to govern how cars are used on common roads and police officers to enforce them. In the academic language of socio-technical transitions theory, all of that stuff is the regime around the car.

This little robot is perhaps the vanguard in the next revolution. In 1969 Bernard Rudofsky declared "Streets are for people"; I think it is time for us to declare that "sidewalks are for people." What do you think?

Should autonomous robots be allowed on sidewalks?