Everyone in Silicon Valley is trying to design something straight out of the future. We treat science and technology as the end all be all of our issues and rightfully so, but here is an unpopular opinion – do we REALLY need technology in every aspect of our lives to make it better? A decade ago, robots doing all our tasks were just a thing of movies and today we don’t go a day without interacting with a robot – think about it, even if you call a place there is a 99% chance an automated voice will speak to you first. So when I read about former Google engineers trying to resurrect a robot that was ‘put to rest’, my question was why are they bringing it back? Let’s evaluate what the two sides of this coin…or chip –
Google engineers created BookBot within the company’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products. It is a simple-looking cube-shaped robot that was becoming popular in a California town where it used to pick up books from residents and deliver them back to the Mountain View Library for check-in. Every Thursday, BookBot which has a limit of 5-10 items will come to you and deliver/pick up the books you request on its website. You will be notified via text message when it arrives or you can follow its route with a link shared with you. Safety concerns were taken care of by constant monitoring and a human handler present for the initial phase. The project’s team lead, Christian Bersch, said they are testing the waters of what could be possible for autonomous, electric robots, the problems they can run into and if it is feasible for bigger, more crowded neighborhoods. Ideally, it would help reduce the vehicles on the road, save personal time and help the senior citizens as well as the disabled residents. Who knows, it could also be the new medium to collect second-hand items for charity!
It ran for 4 months much to the delight of kids who tried playing games with it and also for those who love a cool selfie before being shelved. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response from the Mountain Valley residents and the popularity of BookBot, Google seems to want established third-party experts to handle the deliveries while it focuses on advancing in other tech arenas. The primary reason is presumed to be Project Wing, another Google partnership for making drone deliveries that will optimize Google Shopping. However, the two former Google engineers who worked on BookBot and Area 120, Jake Stelman and Christian Bersch, have launched Cartken that is offering low-cost automated delivery with a darker (think about that all-black Spiderman) version of Bookbot because of how well received it was especially by those who have mobility issues.
Now let’s flip the subject, while it brings convenience to a certain demographic, what struck me as an avid real book reader is that this takes away a part of the library experience. Now as much as we might groan about having to go all the way to return a book, we usually always end up browsing for more books, chatting up with community readers and getting recommendations that we otherwise wouldn’t come across. The whole experience of going to the library brings the local community closer – children study together, adults have bookclubs especially those who are retired and older citizens who are not as tech-savvy and still treat books as a source of entertainment. BookBot and Cartken obviously solve an issue by saving time and effort but, like any robot, it takes out the emotion from the activity and can only see through a logistical lens. As we advance, it is vital to keep in mind that technology can very quickly dehumanize us, make us dependent, reduce the EQ that separates us from robots. I am all for robots cleaning up houses or being able to translate what our pets say to our language, but let’s not take away the smaller life experiences which is also how some earn their livelihood – think of the librarians, clerks, even delivery personnel! In a small town, one robot can take over the jobs of many and unknowingly make us detached. We can now carry thousands of books in one device but it will never be the same as smelling an old book from a library and flipping the page. So I ask once again, do we really need robots to do it all?
Designer: Jake Stelman and Christian Bersch