When movies like “Blade Runner” depict a dystopian, advanced civilization in which robots threaten the survival of humanity, viewers are usually offered only the briefest glimpses into how humans got themselves in such a mess to begin with.
In the case of “Blade Runner,” blame was laid at the feet of the greedy and mysterious Tyrell Corporation.
But in the year 2017, on Planet Earth, in the city of Austin, we can tell you an awful lot about when and how the robots will arrive.
There are good reasons these banal plot points never made it into the movies, because these sorts of decisions happen at the bowels of governance: The City Council meeting.
On Thursday the Austin City Council is poised to approve a pilot program that would allow delivery robots to roam the sidewalks of Austin. Though of course the city has another, more bureaucratic, term for the robots: “electric-powered Personal Delivery robotic Devices,” or PDD.
This type of robot would be used to deliver meals or other merchandise to someone’s doorstep using video cameras, sensors and a GPS system. They are already in use in several U.S. cities, such as Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Bay area.
The City Council is considering allowing them because a company called Starship Technologies has been publicly angling to get its robots on the streets of Austin since last year. Starship works with on-demand delivery companies like Postmates.
Starship’s robots aren’t much like the humanoid “replicants” in “Blade Runner.” Instead, they look like a portable printer on wheels, and trundle along at about 4 miles per hour.
Technically it is already legal to operate delivery robots in Austin, but Starship wanted the city’s blessing before proceeding.
It’s not clear if the city’s pilot program would make it illegal for anyone not partnering with the city to use delivery robots, and city officials declined to answer that question, saying they preferred to wait until after the City Council discussion.
Companies who enroll in the city’s pilot program aren’t required to pay any fees but they will have to have a liability insurance policy of $1 million. (See? They just don’t talk about exciting things like insurance policies for robots in “Blade Runner.”)
Starship said it plans to apply for the city pilot program and hopes to have its robots up and running in Austin this year.
But Starship is not without competitors. There are several other companies launching robot delivery services, such as Marble, Dispatch and Piaggio Fast Forward. Starship is the furthest along, operating in more cities than its competitors.
And if watching a City Council meeting about robots isn’t exciting enough for you, then you’re in luck. “Blade Runner” is coming out with a sequel set in the year 2049. Its theatrical release is set for early October.
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