An invasion of food delivery robots is set to expand, adding a new wrinkle to the gig economy
Imagine an AI-driven future where human workers are at the mercy of mechanical overlords. Or a cyberpunk vision of cyborgs and automated flying cars, a rhapsody in chrome. Or a gritty apocalypse where the machines rage against us.
The metahuman heroes and robot villains of such fantasies probably look nothing like Geoffrey, a light-pink delivery bot with hearts for eyes that has started prowling the sidewalks of downtown Toronto—and that urban dwellers should expect to see more of in 2022 and beyond.
Geoffrey is so cute that humans are stopping him in his tracks to crouch down and take selfies. Despite thousands of hours of engineering to make sure the pint-sized vehicles can “see” accurately with their camera and GPS systems so they can avoid bothering pedestrians, humans are the ones bothering the robots.
“Nobody’s scared. People slow down just to pose with the robots. That, in some sense, is causing a disturbance,” says Ignacio Tartavull, the founder and CEO of Tiny Mile, a startup that wants to revolutionize courier services in the inner city. “We should make it a bit uglier in the future.”
If the Geoffreys had designs on world domination, this would be a promising start.
But as Tartavull sees it, Geoffrey’s net impact should be a benefit to humans, maximizing the profits of restaurants and other small businesses that have been strapped for cash and workers during the pandemic. In October, the company launched an API (application programming interface) that can integrate with Shopify, allowing businesses in downtown Toronto to use Geoffreys to serve clients.
Although Tartavull hopes vendors will embrace the new system, customers can also order through Uber Eats: a dispatcher lets them know the food is arriving by robot, and Geoffrey unlocks and opens when the customer texts a delivery number, or shows it to the robot’s built-in camera. Tartavull claims the delivery costs are about 10 times lower than those of other services.
Geoffrey is not fully autonomous yet and still requires human operators, which has quelled some concerns over the loss of jobs that greater automation could portend. Jennifer Scott, president of Toronto’s Gig Workers United, sympathizes with the knee-jerk reaction, but says “there will still be jobs.” They may just be in building, repairing and manufacturing, rather than in delivery. “Let’s make sure all of those workers who are easily hidden in this conversation don’t end up being in a precarious position,” Scott adds.
Asked about such fears, Tartavull responds that there’s a shortage of delivery workers anyway, and robots only make sense in downtown areas where sidewalks are plentiful and distances are short. In suburbs and rural areas, human couriers make far more sense.
So far, Tartavull adds, there have been several thousand successful deliveries. Geoffrey is stable enough to carry beverages without spilling them and can operate in cold weather. It also boasts decent security from porch pirates: its lid unlocks only with the permission of the recipient, while a loud siren will sound if somebody tries to run off with it. Which, let’s be honest, would be pretty conspicuous.
As of late October, there were only 19 vehicles in the fleet of Geoffreys, which are named after University of Toronto machine-learning guru Geoffrey Hinton. But Tiny Mile expects to have 200 in operation by early 2023. The company has partnered with Bell for 5G connectivity, and says it’s in talks with big prospective partners such as Indigo and Tim Hortons, while looking to expand to Chicago, Boston, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.
Insofar as those last two cities are concerned, the catastrophists among us have little to worry about in the way of robot domination: Geoffrey can only handle 12 cm of snow, meaning Tiny Mile engineers will have to reckon with an entirely different sort of slippery slope.
This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Meals on cute little wheels.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.