Roving surveillance bots are coming to our cities. Luckily, they’re here to help

Imagine this scenario: A new delivery robot comes to town, ushering in a simpler, app-based way to order takeout food, which is then conveniently shuttled to your home in an autonomous robot the size of a cooler.

But that’s only the start of the transformation. A few weeks later, you notice that a couple of missing trees on your street have been replaced. Then the potholes in the road and some sidewalk defects vanish. Next, the air starts to smell a bit sweeter, and a few right-of-way issues are solved so that wheelchairs (and, conveniently, delivery robots) can get through more easily. Finally, the local government announces some changes to local driving rules, diverting traffic so that the street you live on is no longer a tangle of morning traffic.

“When did all this start happening?” you wonder one morning. Then you realize: Your neighborhood delivery robot, it seems, is like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, the silent, mysterious stranger who comes to a new town and cleans it up. Or, perhaps more appropriately, it’s like Amélie, the cutesy do-gooder who performs tiny acts of kindness for those she encounters.

Too good to be true? Possibly. But that’s part of the business proposition set out by a growing number of robotics startups — including the delivery company Kiwibot, which recently announced its next-gen Kiwibot 4.0 delivery robot upgrade. Billing itself as “the world’s best pedestrian,” Kiwibot will be using its myriad of onboard sensors not just to find its way to customers’ homes, but also to gather data about the local community — which can then be fed back to the powers that be.

Capturing the variables

“If you think about a city, there’s tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of decisions that need to be made [on a constant basis],” Diego Varela, chief operating officer at Kiwibot, told Digital Trends. “I’m talking about large cities on a yearly basis around public spending, tree wells, sidewalks, roads, public lights, traffic lights, etc. We are developing technology to capture a lot of this data and share it with cities so that they have a vested interest to have us operating in their cities, because it will make their life easier.”

The idea boils down to something like this: Delivery robots are good for their customers. But how about the rest of us? For instance, Kiwibot might boast cute anime eyes on its display that give it a friendly, Wall-E-like appearance. However, that alone may not be enough to stop the populace from getting annoyed when, at a certain critical mass, we spot the pavement (the part of the street reserved for us puny, flesh-and-blood bipeds) being transformed into mini roads for robots. The results risk being disruptive, and not in the positive “disruption theory” way that makes venture capitalists drool like Homer Simpson.

Kiwibot

Varela said that, currently, he’s not at liberty to share the city where this agreement has been reached. “But there is a major city in the U.S. where we’re going to be capturing somewhere between 15 and 20 variables between air temperature, pollution, air quality, … [and others],” he noted. “I don’t know if this is going to be a long-term thing, but we could be capturing whether people are wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. That’s something that we have already, which is, I think, very interesting.”

Platform urbanism

This is the latest example of what the researcher Sarah Barns calls “platform urbanism,” or Shenja van der Graaf, an expert on smart cities, refers to as “algorithmic governance of the public sphere.” Simply put, technologies like Kiwibot’s delivery robots are going to have a role to play in reshaping the urban environment — and not just by bringing folks delicious hamburgers without them needing to leave their home.

Kiwibot

Kiwibot isn’t the first company giant to consider this type of arrangement, or the potential benefit that could be extracted from it. In October 2014, crowdsourced traffic service Waze launched its Connected Citizens Program, a “free, two-way data exchange empowering municipal decisions to achieve concrete community impact.” Launched with 10 city partners, Waze’s program has since expanded to 450 partners “including city, state and country government agencies, nonprofits, and first responders.”

Waze hails various success stories from its initiative. In Rio de Janeiro, traffic and incident data from Waze was used to identify the neighborhoods that experience the most congestion on election days and determine where yo place management personnel staffing. In Boston, three months of Waze data was utilized to determine the locations with the greatest number of double-parked cars. In a single month, the data was used to issue “more than 240 move alongs and 36 parking tickets.” In Ghent, Belgium, data was used to reduce car traffic by 40 percent, leading to 14 permanent road closures, driving direction changes on 88 streets, the installation of 35 license plate recognition cameras, and more.

Such platforms are increasingly finding their form through standardized initiatives like the Mobility Data Specification framework, a data-sharing program between cities and technology companies that include e-scooter and delivery robot makers.

Both parties benefit

It’s easy to see what the appeal is for both cities and tech companies. Cities get to create rich veins of smart city data without having to spend a whole lot on laying down additional infrastructure. Why build your own air pollution-monitoring or pothole-detecting robots if it can be done by a startup that will pay for the research and development? Why deploy drones for monitoring mask wearers and social distancing when it could conceivably be done by a robot?

Tech companies, meanwhile, get to look good (“hey, we’re improving your surroundings!”) while also embedding themselves more deeply into the public space. Once these data-gathering technologies are entrenched, and relied upon by government bodies, removing them gets harder. And why would they want to? It’s just added hassle — like being a customer in the Apple ecosystem who, despite owning an iPhone, Mac, and Apple Watch, inexplicably decides to buy an Android tablet in place of an iPad.

Does Varela think there is a flip side to this? After all, as with any surveillance technology, there are both pluses and minuses. Online, personalization gives us search results or recommendations that reflect our browsing history. But it also opens up concerns about an online space that is about as far as possible from cartoonist Peter Steiner’s 1993 New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

"On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" comic by Peter Steiner
Peter Steiner/The New Yorker

Will people be happy to have delivery robots and their ilk help to improve neighborhoods by feeding back a stream of information about what needs to be fixed? Or will they view them like tiny Orwellian robot hall monitors?

“It is a divisive topic, but it is not our intention to divide our community, but rather unite them,” Varela said. “… As a citizen of the future, when we think about smarter cities, cleaner cities, nicer-to-walk-around cities, we think our adorable robot should be a part of that landscape. We would hate to do something that would upset the communities that we’re in.”

Winning the delivery robot war

Kiwibot has a lot going in its favor. Having made more than 150,000 deliveries with its army of semiautonomous robots, the company is aiming to have the world’s biggest fleet of delivery bots. It is currently available in Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Jose, California. According to Varela, the goal is to have Kiwibot “in the top 15 cities in the United States within the next three to four years.”

KiwiBot

This is a competitive area, though. Even just focusing on delivery robots, and ignoring the other ways food might wind up in the mouths of customers, there are many companies in this area, all scrapping for their piece of the delivery pie.

Who is going to win the battle of the delivery bots? That remains to be seen. But plenty of variables will have to play out along the way: Who has the better partnerships? Who will get to market first in the places that matter the mose? Perhaps “who has the best data-sharing partnerships with local governments” will be one of the ways this contest might be won and lost.

However it plays out, one thing’s for sure: We’re nowhere near the end of the road when it comes to algorithmic governance of the public sphere. In fact, we’re just getting started. Welcome to the age of platform urbanism.

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