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NEXT: Squirrels & Drones

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Squirrels & DronesThe sights of OSU's campus: Grubhub robots and squirrels. (Robot photo by Walker Evans)
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Anyone who has spent time wandering Ohio State’s Oval cannot help but to encounter a squirrel scampering around, going about their business, usually avoiding people. Occasionally, you can see people feeding them, although truth be told, I do not see this kind of activity as much as I once did. At one time, squirrels were as much a part of campus culture as the Orton chimes or Mirror Lake: when Jeff Smith was a student here, a squirrel was a main character in his Lantern comic strip Thorn. Today, we co-exist with squirrels, even if we do not interact with them a lot. They go about their business as we scamper off to ours.

I am reminded of the squirrels on the Oval as I have observed all this semester the steady movements—one cannot describe it as scampering—of a fleet of Grubhub robots, delivering food across campus.

As with any Grubhub order, I order my coffee or sandwich using an app on my phone. Café employees fill my order and place it within the hold of the robot. It then moves around the campus, programmed to stop if it encounters a car. The drones are also programmed to avoid humans, slowing down or stopping when crossing paths with us. They roll along at a speed close to a human gait, maybe even a bit faster. When it arrives, it notifies me that it is parked outside my office building. Note: it will not come into my building and deliver directly to me, meaning that at this juncture, it will not go up elevators. I then go outside, enter a code given to me when I made the purchase, which releases the hold granting me access to my lunch. The robot then goes on its way back to the café.  

At this moment, at least, these delivery drones are not really replacing human labor, or at least the labor of someone who might deliver food. I suppose that were I to order food via Grubhub I would expect someone to deliver it to me. But the restaurants and cafes that are currently served by these robots are all located on or near campus, the sorts of places to which I would usually walk to get my coffee or sandwich. That is, the labor being displaced here is my—the customer’s—labor.

Right now, our family is using the curb-side pickup from Kroger.  We drive to the store, have someone load the groceries, and then we take them home. Add delivery drones to this system and the only human labor displaced is the customer’s labor in securing the groceries. To state it another way, a robot makes the uncompensated labor of the customer redundant.  

I have noted before the “new mobility,” where an increasing part of “the world” is made mobile and deliverable to me. Drones will be an important agent in that ecosystem. As these delivery drones proliferate, they will no doubt expand what can be delivered to me and the range of service will also expand. Delivery drivers will doubtless be made redundant.

The Grubhub drones present a lesson in how we will interact with artificial intelligence. We may find that our daily interactions with autonomous agents will be:

1) In a servile position. That is, it is the artificial intelligence that will serve us. The most significant impact of artificial intelligence on employment may very well be in upending the service economy.  

2) We will have very little direct interaction with AI, except perhaps at the point of sale. That is, we will likely walk, drive, move about the world sharing space with autonomous agents that will, for the most part, stay out of our way. They will reach a stage when they will be largely invisible to us, even as they walk beside us. Like a squirrel, autonomous agents will become so ubiquitous that, once the novelty wears off, we will hardly notice them. Or care about them.  

In the early novelty phase, I once saw a student deliberately block the delivery drone’s path, forcing it to stop. He then tried to pry open the device, but then failing that, let it go on about its way. Such acts of sabotage were fleetingly rare, I must say.  More commonly, whenever I see someone interact with the robot—other than to retrieve their food order—it is to help it. I once saw a student move a scooter parked in the pedestrian path, the robot seemingly frozen by its algorithm which instructs it to stop around wheeled vehicles. I have found that most people—if they are otherwise indifferent or non-plussed—are actually quite friendly, even sympathetic, to the drones.   

In the future, there will be a whole host of these autonomous agents and autonomous systems that we will interact with, at the same time we are unaware of or indifferent to them. Like squirrels on the Oval, they will do their thing and we will do ours.  

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists.

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