Jeff Bezos and our robot future

Jeff Bezos has seen the future of retail delivery, and it is the drone.

When the storied CEO of Amazon told “60 Minutes” that he’s working on 30-minute delivery by tiny unmanned octocopter, it prompted an instant wave of disbelief and derision. One wag on Twitter joked that Amazon would offer free shipping to all military-aged Muslim males.

Our culture is primed to celebrate the new and marvel at technological innovation — except when it comes to the drone. Then, the first reaction of many people is to muse about shooting the newfangled contraptions out of the sky. If the country is to be kept safe, evidently, all aircraft within the United States must always and forevermore be manned.

The root of the drone’s image problem is obviously its outsized role in the war on terror, where it is a highly effective tool of surveillance and assassination. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusively a tool of warfare or inherently nefarious, any more than that is true of airplanes, guns, helicopters, barbed wire, sandbags or tracked vehicles — all of which play their part in horrific wars, and are still useful civilian tools.

Certainly, nothing could be more blissfully pacific than the promotional video for Amazon Prime Air. It shows a drone picking a small package up from a warehouse conveyor belt — where it was placed by a human — and then taking it on a pleasant jaunt in the air before dropping it outside a satisfied customer’s door.

It’s not going to be that easy, of course. Imagine the lawsuit the first time an Amazon drone hits someone or crashes into someone’s roof. And good luck getting the Federal Aviation Administration to play along. In its wisdom, the agency issued an advisory against the commercial use of drones back in 2007. Full-blown certification of unmanned aircraft may not start until 2020.

Bezos is nonetheless onto something, as he has been before. (It once would have seemed a fantasy that you could sit at a computer and order with “1-Click” goods to be delivered to your home the next day.) Drone technology still needs to mature, but it will. Over time, drones will become cheaper, more precise and more robust.

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic points out, Bezos is wise to be thinking ahead, given how rapidly dominant retailers are overtaken by more nimble competitors. As of 1982, according to Thompson, Sears was still the biggest retailer in America. Soon enough, it would be a fraction of the size of Wal-Mart. In imagining a drone future, Bezos is honoring the prime directive of retail: Get people what they want, cheaper and faster, using the latest technology.

He’s not the first to think about drone delivery. Domino’s in Britain flew a demonstration pizza-delivery flight earlier this year. Fred Smith of FedEx has talked of switching the company’s fleet over to drones. A futuristic “blended wing” design that doesn’t distinguish clearly between body and wing would allow more room for cargo, according to Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the CEO of 3D Robotics.

Assuming the FAA gets out of the way, drones could have a variety of applications that don’t involve spying or firing missiles at terrorists. They could be used to monitor power lines and pipelines. They could be used in search-and-rescue. They could be used in making movies and promotional videos. They could be used to evaluate storm damage. And they could be valuable to farmers.

Chris Anderson believes drones may be the future of agriculture, allowing farmers to monitor large fields more carefully, and use water and pesticide with greater precision and care. Japan has realized this for a long time. Its ministry of agriculture began promoting the use of drones in the early 1980s. Now, 40 percent of Japan’s rice crop is sprayed by unmanned aircraft.

Scoff at Jeff Bezos, if you like. But our robot future is already here, and it will inevitably take flight.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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