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SCIENCE AND TECH

5 MIN

Hot Takeoff: The Future of Travel Doesn't Have to Be a Soulless Robot Dystopia

Sure, humans can be rude and obnoxious – but robots are even worse, and don't give you local information

Hot Takeoff is a column about travel and cities by the editor of Billy.

Let me tell you about the time a robot picked me up.

Uber is running automated vehicle research experiments in Pittsburgh, which makes sense to do there because the city is well known for robotics. We’ve covered this local specialty in Billy before, and I had skimmed some of the bad press the project has received. (Long story short: Promised local jobs have not materialized.)

Still, when an app says you’re about to be chauffeured by a driverless vehicle, it comes as a surprise. Or at least it did to me. I was given the option to opt out, and no doubt there are people who do for safety concerns, or because they don’t like the idea of putting human drivers out of work.

Neither do I. But in a moment of journalistic curiosity, I grabbed a lift into the future.

Look around and you’ll notice signs that automated services will make travel more lonely and less human in the years ahead. My first clue came in 2012, when I checked in to a citizenM hotel in Glasgow via a kiosk, without speaking to an actual person. This may have saved me a few seconds, but it deprived me of an opportunity to dig that lovely Glaswegian accent.

citizenM

The check-in area at the citizenM London Bankside

Meanwhile, we covered the arrival of hotel robots delivering room service (among other tasks) in Billy earlier this year.

There are perfectly valid questions to be raised about whether the technology is ready to give us good customer service, and, more important, how these changes will affect human workers. A third worry for me is the prospect of automation making the experience of travel less vivid and more sterile. I suspect that without the nuance and friction of dealing with strangers face-to-face, travel won’t feel like travel at all.

Hell is other robots

Earlier this year, a public relations firm working for a popular travel booking site approached Billy with the idea of a writer taking an entire trip “with minimal or no contact with another human being!” (Gleeful punctuation original.)

Here’s how the trip would have gone: The writer boarding the plane (and pre-ordering duty free items) using Air Canada’s app, using Gate Guru to navigate an airport, and even carrying around a Minipresso machine so that any caffeine requirements would not result in a run-in with a pesky human. Finally the writer would gain access to a hotel room using automated booking tools and keyless check-in. And then the same in reverse to get home.  

"Most machines remain quite bad at the service jobs in which they would replace us."

Allegedly this exercise would have “tested the theory that technology can make business travel nearly seamless.” This is a puzzling perspective, because the contemporary state of automation is nothing if not full of seams, seams all over the place, and surely every one of us has tripped over them.

For anyone who still imagines that personless travel will feel as smooth as the rollers on a new suitcase, please recall the frustration of ringing through a basket of groceries at an automatic lane – “PLACE ITEM IN BAGGING AREA! PLACE ITEM IN BAGGING AREA!” Et cetera et cetera until security drags you away for kicking the stupid thing.

Now imagine putting yourself through this kind of ordeal while you’re cranky and deflated after an exhausting flight. You know you have a valid reservation, and simply cannot wait to kick your shoes off, but the damn hotel robot is inexplicably barring you from getting into your room and flopping on the bed.

My point is that most machines remain, at least as of 2017, quite bad at the service jobs in which they would replace us. The pain of using automated services is something everyone knows, but it’s seldom discussed for some reason (here’s an exception at Slate). How many companies can build a machine that performs to a level of service that a hotel chain or airline could be proud of?

A smooth ride

My driverless Uber trip differed from most experiences with automation in that it did not make me want to smash anything.

The whole thing took place rather smoothly. Having finished a delicious dinner at Bar Marco in Pittsburgh’s Strip District (try the pork tonnato), I opened my Uber app to book a trip to the next stop, a distillery called Maggie’s Farm (which makes superb rum; leave room in your suitcase).

“Eventually the goal would be to have first one, and then no people.”

A grey Volvo XC90 rolled quietly up the potholed street, covered in Uber decals and sporting a cylindrical sensor atop the roof that flashed and rotated like a corny prop out of Star Trek (the original series, 1966-69). I could see there were two twentysomething white guys in the front seat. I hopped in and introduced myself as a journalist and then, exhibiting an unprofessional level of excitement, I shot a video of the most of the four-minute ride.  

Adam McDowell/Billy

My driverless Uber

Riding in the passenger’s seat, Jordan Stahl explained he was helping to tweak the feel of the ride – assessing whether, in a given situation, the car could be taught how to “break smoother, accelerate smoother, things like that.” He held a laptop on his knees that showed a schematic view of our ride in real time, including representations of stop signs, a cyclist and other potential obstacles. The car navigated them without a glitch.

In the driver’s seat sat Brandon Dunbar, who explained that his role was to grab the wheel and override the computer to adjust the course if necessary. It did not become necessary.

So yes, the brief journey was pleasant – but ironically, that was only the case because I had people to talk to. “Since it’s still a research vehicle, there’s two of us for now,” Dunbar said. “Eventually the goal would be to have first one, and then no people.”

And then what kind of ride would that be? Silent, boring and soulless, and as a passenger-visitor, I would learn nothing about the place I was watching out the windows.

On-the-ground knowledge is an asset

It’s pretty trite to say meeting people is an enjoyable part of the travel experience. So let’s flip it around and consider what the loss of it would cost us. If humans become a smaller part of travelling, what will we miss?

“Travel is becoming a series of solitary confinements on the way from one place to another.”

Especially for people whose jobs involve knowing what the public wants and what they’re talking about, there’s plenty of valuable information to glean from talking to strangers away from home. To date, for example, the only face-to-face conversation I’ve had with a Trump supporter happened last fall; it started when a New York taxi driver asked me about my Canadian-style health care. Months later, during my evening out in Pittsburgh, I enjoyed a friendly chat with my next Uber driver – a human, this time – as he carefully navigated the wet streets in a pounding rain. He turned out to be one of those many Americans who drive north to Toronto for the annual Caribana Caribbean carnival, and we shared our admiration of each other’s cities.

Before we transform travel into a clinically lonely experience – a series of solitary confinements on the way from one place to another – let us consider the value of these chance connections. Local chatter and gossip, local perspectives, even local accents – these are sensory details that help make a trip more memorable after the fact. We should regard them as precious knowledge.

That’s why the next time a car-hire app asks if I want a driverless vehicle, I’m going to say no. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people-loving people. On the contrary: People can be the worst. But for getting to know a place, they’re the best.

Published Saturday, September 23rd 2017

Header image credit: Ugh. Robots. / Shutterstock

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