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the future is now

Photo from USAToday.com

Amazon announced today that it’s testing using drones, essentially a kind of small, automated aircraft, which will deliver packages at faster speeds.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/12/01/amazon-bezos-drone-delivery/3799021/

I’m no technophobe, and my first thought on reading this was “Cool.” It still is, because this is some very Jetson-esque news, even if it is a few years off from being widely available. And novelty aside, I think this could be an advantage for people living away from major city centers. Since I moved to New York, there’s very little I haven’t been able to get delivered inside of three days, and that’s allowing for my student schedule which means there’s not anyone around the apartment at predictable hours to accept a package. But I remember when I lived in other parts of the country, Cleveland and North Carolina, I needed to budget at least a week for it to get into my hands reliably. Anything that speeds up delivery for me could make a real difference for others.

That said, I do have a few concerns.

1) Responsibility. I’m sure the drones make fewer mistakes than human delivery men, but there are bound to be some mistakes. Say an arm breaks and a carton crashes down on some poor man’s roof. Who is responsible for this? If it was an accident caused by an actual human, you’d have an agent, a decision-maker to point to as the cause of the damage. And maybe it wouldn’t turn out to be his fault, but then you’d turn to other people who were involved. With something as automated as a delivery-drone, it seems more likely that any problems would end up being no one’s fault, really. It’s a question worth asking: are liability laws, our ideas about responsibility and ethics, etc., ready to make sense of this much automation?

2) Economic Justice. More automation means less need for manual labor, whether it’s people loading up the delivery trucks or driving them around. The lost jobs are probably going to be lower-wage jobs (delivery-men rather than the engineers making these drones fly). On the one hand, eliminating the need for work seems like a good thing, since it frees people up to do other things. On the other hand, automation has hardly worked out well for the John Henry’s of the world. So it’s wroth asking: how is this affecting the guys who were driving trucks for Amazon? Is this benefiting them, or will they simply be out of a job?

3) Privacy. Drones aren’t restricted to fly over public roads; they’d basically be flying over everyone’s house. I have no real reason to expect they’d attach a camera to these gizmos, but I have no doubt they could do this just fine. This seems to have the potential to redefine where we have a reasonable expectation of privacy. I want to know just how much these gizmos will be able to “see,” and what restraints there will be on how they use and share that data. Mainly this concerns me because I can’t imagine anyone being okay with this if the USPS proposed using these kinds of drones. There can be such a divide between how we think of the data the government has access to and what private companies can know, as if the latter isn’t problematic.

4) Language. This seems almost pedantic, but do we have to use the word drone? Technically it’s accurate, probably, but it also seems to dull down what should be an entirely negative association with Pakistani orphans and some of the few remaining technologies that’s still made-in-America. It’s not a term I want connected to something as mundane and ordinary as getting me my new book.

And of course the normal concerns about the threat to small and local businesses, the way wwe can go through our lives without meaningful human connection should also go here as well. I’m not going into that because those are hardly new problems, although of course they’re worth keeping in mind.

That said, a lot of these concerns aren’t major ones. I mainly wanted to kick the tires a bit on this new technology. My reaction still is hovering in the neighborhood of Cool on this one. Even moreso if Bezos could only figure out a way to get me my new snowboots without me having to hang around the apartment all day waiting for the deliveryman to show.

2 Comments

  • alfaretta
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had (small) problems with Amazon in the past, and getting to a human is almost impossible. This would remove the one actual human interface of the purchasing experience.

    And I don’t consider the Economic Justice element to be small. Freeing people up to do other things is a wonderful concept — if there were enough decent jobs to go around.

    • fidesquaerens
      Posted December 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      I probably could have been a little more clear on that point. Of course things like economic justice are hugely important in general. But I’m not clear how much of an impact this decision will have. The problems with economic justice are part of bigger problems going back at least to the factory modernizations of the 1980s. The privacy concern is a newer issue, I think.

      As for Amazon, I’ve had a much easier time getting to talk to actual people than with other large companies. Chatting with a customer service person online is usually fairly quick to do, and if I want to physically speak with someone, I think their website has a place where you can request that someone call you so you’re not stuck on hold for an hour. That’s just my experience, of course.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughts, in any event. I appreciate you considering what I have to say.

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