What's Not To Love About Tiny Robots on Our Sidewalks?

Geoffrey is small, cute, and driven by humans. What could possibly go wrong?

Tiny Mile Robots

Tiny Mile

Tiny Mile is a Canadian company that developed Geoffrey, a 10-pound pink delivery robot, named after a professor known as "the father of AI." Treehugger has never had much good to say about delivery robots, previously noting:

"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." 

Then there is Geoffrey. I am having trouble getting mad at it. Perhaps it is the size, perhaps it is the earnest cuteness designed into Geoffrey with help from the Ryerson Design Fabrication Zone. Tiny Mile founders Ignacio Tartavull and Gellert Mattyus previously worked with Uber on autonomous cars, but Geoffrey is not autonomous; it is controlled remotely by a human using a laptop and a joystick, navigating with GPS and watching through front- and rear-mounted wide-angle cameras.

This sounds like a more interesting gig than doing deliveries – and eliminates all those delivery humans standing around waiting for the order to be ready, and all those restaurant humans watching their food get cold when the driver hasn't shown up, two big problems in the industry. Account manager Omar Elawi tells Treehugger who's behind the wheel:

"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."

Tiny Mile sees their market as being very local food service; even though Geoffrey can run for eight hours, it is meant to travel a little over a mile at walking speed, so that delivered food will still be fresh and hot.

Tiny Mile on the Waterfront

Tiny Mile

In previous posts about delivery robots taking over our sidewalks, readers suggested that these would never survive people trying to flip them or steal their lunch, but Elawi tells Treehugger that this has not been a big problem, even on the mean streets of Toronto:

"There have been no real problems, an amazing reaction actually. A couple of kids were throwing snowballs. Many people would actually help it when it got stuck in the snow."

Soon it will even have a speaker so that the driver can say thank you for the help.

The usual elevator pitch for autonomous delivery robots is that they eliminate the cost of the expensive and pesky person on the bike or in the car, or as one reader put it, "the purpose of the robots is to kill the jobs of delivery people, the lowest-paid junk jobs that usually go to the young, the poor, the immigrant and those whose records freeze them out of regular jobs. All this to grab just a sliver more profit."

The Tiny Mile driver deal is different; they are paid a salary, and it is well above minimum wage. Founder Tartavull told the CBC that "Geoffrey isn't here to take away jobs, but eventually create more — with higher pay." It will also be more environmentally friendly; "A few years from now it's going to sound ridiculous that we use a car to carry a burrito."

There are other advantages for the operator, such as less waiting around for orders, contact-free operation during the pandemic, and access to a washroom.

But there is not much of a business model pairing a single robot with a single operator. The plan is to have an operator control two or three robots; one might be waiting for an order while the other is doing a delivery. But they also intend to build in some autonomy into Geoffrey, and this is where it gets interesting.

Automation Levels


As everyone who thought we would have self-driving cars by 2020 has found out, full autonomy Is really hard to do. That's why many switched from cars; as a roboticist working with the Starship robot company noted in an earlier post, “We can get this technology out sooner than self-driving cars because it’s not going to hurt anybody. You can’t kill a pizza. You can ruin it but that’s not a disaster.” But even that is going to be hard, the equivalent of Level 5 automation in cars.

Omar Elawi of Tiny Mile discussed how Geoffrey might get the equivalent of Level 2, partial automation, where it can steer a straight line on its own, but would still need full supervision of a driver.

So, given my previous antipathy expressed in posts like Robots are Stealing Our Sidewalks and Sidewalks are for People. Should We Let the Robots Steal Them, what is so different about Geoffrey?

  • 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 is really not a robot, but is more like a cyborg, "a combination of a living organism and a machine."
  • It's way smaller and slower than many of the other delivery robots being discussed; in the State of Pennsylvania, they can weigh 550 pounds and go 12 miles per hour.
  • It's not killing jobs, but could create them.
  • If it reduces the use of cars for delivery, it could reduce carbon emissions.
Tiny Mile in Toronto

Tiny Mile

So Geoffrey is cute, it's tiny, and perhaps I am giving it the benefit of the doubt because it has roots in a 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.

If it stays small, slow, local, and driven by humans, perhaps there is a place for this technology. I just don't know how you actually draw a line there.