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City of the future

by Forbesarticles
City of the future

City of the future in food delivery. It’s the thing that saves millennials from starvation. By my calculations, Americans order over 20 million restaurant deliveries every single day. Over half of these deliveries are actually within walking distance. But nine out of 10 are delivered in cars. So basically,  moving a two-pound burrito in a two-ton car 20 million times a day. The energy to bring you that burrito is actually bringing you a two-ton metal cage with heated seats. 

Let’s be honest. We are addicted to our cars. Did you know that in America, for every car, there are four parking spots? In some downtowns, over half of the real estate is for cars. We have designed our cities around our cars because we drive whether we’re going two miles or 200 miles. Solo, or with our whole family. We get into the same SUV to go buy coffee or a coffee table. If we could free up some of these streets and parking lots, we could build more housing, more social spaces, more parks. But to do that, first, we need to rethink how we are using cars today. 

In the city of the future, if you want to go five blocks, you summon a bike or a scooter. If you’re in a rush, a passenger drone would pick you up. And if you need food, no need to have someone drive over — the food will make its way to you. 

Let’s go back to those 20 million a day restaurant deliveries. If we could get these deliveries off the road, we could reduce the need for as many as one and a half million cars just in the US. That’s twice the size of San Francisco. Now, think of the impact this could have on cities like Delhi, or my birth city of Tehran, where car pollution is killing thousands of people every year. 

So how do we get some of these deliveries off the road?  And the solution is actually one of the building blocks of the city of the future. The small, self-driving robots that navigate quiet alleys and sidewalks on a walking pace and have a secured cargo to deliver you food and supplies. 

Now, before I tell you more about the robots, let’s do a quick thought experiment. In your mind, picture a city with thousands of robots. Is it this one? This Hollywood dystopia is what a lot of people expect. But the robot is a friendly future that’s designed for people. Robots that would belong in our communities. But we also wanted a little surprise. Something unexpectedly delightful. 

Think about it. You’re walking down the street, and you see your very first robot. That’s the moment when you’re going to decide if this is a future you love or fear. And with a lot of people having these dystopian ideas, we need to open their minds. We want to surprise and delight them so that we can win them over on the first impression.  It’s just a shopping cart, but it also looks like we crossbred WALL-E with Minions. If you live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, chances are one of these has already delivered your food. 

As soon as robots out on the street, we learned some really interesting problems. Like, how should robots cross the road? Or how should robots interact with people with visual or mobility impairments? We quickly realized that we need to teach our robots how to communicate with people. People on the sidewalk come from every walk of life, so we needed to create a new language, kind of a universal language so people and robots can understand each other right off the bat. Because no one is going to be reading user manuals. 

But it turned out these were not enough. At intersections, cars would cut in front of robots. Drivers were getting confused sometimes because robots would take too long before they started crossing. Even ordinary pedestrians were getting confused. Sometimes, they couldn’t figure out on which side to pass the robots, because robots make a lot of small adjustments to their direction as they move. This actually sparked a new idea. Like, at intersections, robots would gently move forward before they start crossing, to signal to drivers that it’s their turn. If they see someone in a wheelchair, they yield by pointing themselves away from the sidewalk, to signal that they’re not going to move. 

Some of you may remember this. In 2015, Canadian researchers sent a robot hitchhiking across the US. It didn’t get very far. It turns out that robots can also use some social skills. Like, if they’re being tampered with, Carnegie Mellon researchers have shown that small toy robots should play dead because people feel bad when they think they broke it. But delivery robots aren’t toys, they’re not small, they are out there in public.  In this case, robots need to acknowledge the situation to get people to step away. Also, a word of advice. If you are a robot and you see small kids, run towards the closest adult. It turns out that some kids just love harassing robots. 

Focused on food delivery, but in the future, these robots can do more. Like, they could gather excess food and bring it to shelters every night. Because in America, we waste 30 percent of our food, while 10 percent of the people experience food insecurity. These robots could be part of the solution. 

Or when we have hundreds of robots running around cities, we could have robots carry emergency medications at all times, just in case someone nearby has an allergic reaction or an asthma attack. These robots could be on-site within a minute or two, faster than anyone else. And during pandemics, robots can be a key part of our infrastructure. They can ensure that we can provide our communities with the essential needs even during emergencies. 

Let me leave you with one last thought. Today, objects can’t get from A to B without human help, because our three-dimensional world is quite complex. But new sensors and AI can change that. In a way, technology is like a baby that has just learned to recognize objects and understand words, and maybe even hold a basic conversation, but it hasn’t learned to walk yet. Now, teaching technology on how to navigate the three-dimensional world without our help. Entering this new era where insentient objects are going to get up and move freely. And when they do,  got to make sure they don’t look like aliens. 

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