Monday, January 2, 2017

Robots That Deliver The Goods

            In the ever increasing search to find ways to eliminate unnecessary human connections in the modern world, an online food ordering and delivery service company from the U.K. called Just Eat is going to be using robots to deliver food that has been ordered online.  Seven of these special robots, which are really sort of like boxes on wheels, have been leased from Starship Technologies, the British company developing these sidewalk self-driving drone robots.  Each of these boxes can hold a large bag of delivery food.  No longer are customers, who receive their deliveries from these robots, going to have to worry about tipping a delivery boy or girl.  In addition, sometimes there just simply aren’t enough humans to deliver all the orders that are generated at peak times at traditional delivery restaurants.  With these robots, no one is going to have to wait an unusually long period of time for their food.

            In the U.S., there is a gourmet sandwich company called Jimmy John’s that prides itself on how fast its delivery people can deliver its food.  It has these ads where there are conversations between a driver and a manager, and both people are talking superfast as a sign that the company is aware of how important time is for its typical customers.  Sometimes people’s work in today’s world doesn’t allow them much time to eat, but very often it is simply a matter that when modern people are hungry, they want to eat right away.  It’s not just that they feel physically hungry.  It is also that they want immediate gratification to fill the experiential void they feel inside themselves.  By talking fast, the actors for these ads are trying to indicate that the people at Jimmy John’s can operate like high-speed machines to help customers fill the void.  A machine is thought of as being fast and efficient and it doesn’t waste time.

            But now with the Just Eat robots, we won’t have to worry about people who try to work like machines, and who, therefore, inevitably make mistakes.  We will have machines making the deliveries, entities that can just be themselves and do the work they were meant to do.

            Now pretty soon, even without these chests on wheels, machine delivery for all sorts of items will become fairly common, as all kinds of drones are used more and more.  But there is something particularly disturbing about the Just Eat robots delivering food.  Food is perhaps the most experientially grounded thing that humans produce.  It is nutritious for the body and nurturing for the mind and the spirit.  It provides an important grounded component to a person’s field of experience both internally and externally.

            And because it is such a special phenomenon for human beings, it was traditionally surrounded by other grounded components to make a more fully grounded field of experience in the lives of people.  In traditional societies, people would normally sit down together at meals with family and guests and break bread together.  Among many groups, people would give thanks to their spiritual entity through prayer for the bounty of their meal.  The grounded connection was made of food, family or community, land or sea, and spirit or spirits.  All was part of one organic entity.

            As societies evolved, and more vocational specialization occurred, there developed inns, tea houses and public houses – gathering places where people could eat, drink, and sometimes sleep away from home and family.  Nevertheless, there was still the idea of bonded human connections between the server and guest.  Frequently, along with food, the server would provide the guest with conversation to make him feel welcome.  These places could be so welcoming that community meetings were sometimes held in them.  As the food business grew, and more and more people ate out – sometimes because of work and sometimes because people simply had the discretionary income to eat out more and didn’t want to bother with cooking – restaurants evolved and servers became more focused on serving food rather than on making small talk.  Dining became less leisurely, and most restaurant owners and managers became more focused on volume of customers – getting customers in and out.

            The trend of perceiving food as defined discrete hopefully tasty nutrition and less as flowing blendable continual nurturance has continued to grow with the advances in technology.  The availability of the car meant that food could be acquired even more quickly at drive-ins.  Furthermore, the use of advanced cooking machinery meant that food could be acquired quickly with a minimum of bonded connection with a server.  Hence, all the fast food outlets that serve people quickly, even when the people don’t use the drive-through windows.

            There has also been the acquisition of food at automats and vending machines.  Automats seem to be extinct now, but vending machines continue to be as popular as ever, and many places like hospitals have rooms filled with them.  At both automats and vending machine rooms, there has been no bonded connection between the customer and the person who puts the food in the appropriate places in the machine.  Here the customer receives his food from within the complete experiential vacuum of the machine.

            And yet to use an automat or a vending machine, a person still has had to go out into the external world, where he is likely to encounter other people with whom he can socially interact.  With the Just Eat robot, a person can stay in his home and have food delivered to his home and, if he is not living with someone or some ones and if he is not having people over to visit, he never has to encounter other humans.  He can build a social vacuum in his home.

            For many food service places, the idea of a delivery robot is very appealing.  As robots replace humans in the food services industry, it will mean getting rid of the cost involved with wages and insurance for delivery boys and girls.  It will also mean that food service places won’t have to purchase vehicles for delivery people.  In addition, robots don’t take vacations and don’t need days off (unless, perhaps, there is a repair issue).  So robots could be potentially a cost effective substitute for human delivery people in the food services industry.

            But, as has been discussed many times previously in this column, there is a different kind of price to pay for the substitution of robots for humans.  Not only does it involve shutting humans out of one more form of work, but it involves disrupting one more area of human connectedness, one more part of the larger social grounding in human communities.  If robots take over everything in the area of human services, the experiential distortion will be enormous, and social isolation in an experiential vacuum will lead not only to growing mental health problems but also to growing robotization, as people become more and more like the complex behavioral entities (namely, the robots) that surround them.  And this will be because more and more robots and other complex machines will become their dominant sources for mirroring and modeling.  In short, we will increasingly become like the complex behavioral entities that we use.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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