Need a COVID Cure? Hail a Robot Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because while robots might subjugate all of us, at least we'll be fat and happy when they do so.
By Eugene S. Robinson
- Dave Ferguson’s Nuro, an autonomous delivery startup, just raised $500 million for a post-money valuation of $5 billion.
- Nuro’s macro-goals are less about groceries and more about altering our relationship to the physical world.
“Dave is here.” A couple of things happen after that. One is you immediately, given the 40-year-old Dave Ferguson’s robotic pedigree, think about the killer AI system from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey film; and two, does he routinely refer to himself in the third person?
“Haha, no,” he says in a phone call after a business meeting in New York. “It just seemed strange to say ‘I’m here.'” Strange maybe but not unusual, because Ferguson is most assuredly here. Here being astride Nuro, a company he and Jiajun Zhu, another former Google engineer, started in 2016, when their fundamental view of reality just … changed.
“The digital world and how heavily we interact with it just came to be in the last 30 years,” the New Zealand–born Ferguson says. “But in regards to the physical world, not much has changed in the last 50 years. Or 100 years.” Cars are not remarkably different. Or, in a point he makes in a speech during a presentation on “Democratizing Autonomy,” neither are chairs.
So given the fact that we negotiate the spaces around us in the same ways, it seems like we are overdue for a rethink. This was not so much a eureka moment as it was a “wisdom moment.”
“JZ and I were out at dinner,” says Ferguson about his co-founder, with whom he also worked at Google on driverless cars. “And we decided we wanted to create a company that would both matter and would change how we interact in the physical world.”
“Improve.” With home assistant robots and the rest of the automation we have in our lives, this didn’t seem to be that much a reach. And while first out of the box has been the R2, Nuro’s driverless vehicle, it’s a technology that seems both right time and right place. Especially given the ubiquity of COVID-19 shutdowns and contactless delivery of everything from goods to meals. However, that’s just the tip of the spear.
We spent our time trying to get it to not hit stuff. Which is kind of what I’m still doing.
Next, though the company is keeping specifics close to the vest, are robotic insertions between us and a whole raft of physical realities that, much like the original framework of a robotic world, inures us from the dull and dreary. The concept has been an obsession of Ferguson’s since he got first got obsessed with robots back in New Zealand.
Having been more a tree-climbing than robot-loving kind of a kid, Ferguson, two years younger than a brother at the University of Otago who became a pathologist, had no idea what he wanted to do — outside of avoiding computers.
So at first the law drew his interest. But then an undergraduate project — designing a little red, round robot that looked like a cross between a trash can and one of those Daleks from Dr. Who — got him. “We spent our time trying to get it to not hit stuff,” Ferguson laughs. “Which is kind of what I’m still doing.”
It’s a nod to the fact that the Nuro R2 got an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to operate without windshields or side mirrors on public roads because the vehicles both had no driver or passengers, and NHTSA felt fairly certain they wouldn’t be crashing into anything. (You can now find them on the roads in Houston, Phoenix and Mountain View, California.) The feds’ certainty is shared by investors who last month poured $500 million into Nuro, driving its valuation to $5 billion.
Those are bets well placed if you consider how Nuro’s solutions that were in search of a problem finally had a problem worthy of them: COVID-19. Supermarkets and other brick-and-mortar joints are packed, enclosed spaces where the virus can spread quickly, and delivery drivers from UPS to FedEx and Amazon? Well, that’s a relationship now fraught with paranoia, enough so that suddenly the idea of having automated deliveries doesn’t seem so much a nice-to-have but a must-have. That includes medical supplies that Nuro is now delivering free to COVID-19 patients.
Which is all well and good for today, but Ferguson is impressed with where else robots, piggybacked on our digital infrastructure, can make a difference. Those are places that in all likelihood — according to Riccardo Biasini, a veteran of Tesla and self-driving vehicle company Comma.ai, now at a super secret location for Elon Musk’s Boring Company — is where Ferguson may stumble if he’s going to stumble at all.
“Robotics can change our lives,” Biasini says, echoing Ferguson’s take. “And it works great for transportation. But the main challenges are the user interface aspect: How do you get the robot to do what you want?” Getting one smart system to exchange information with another smart system is a heavy lift.
Not to mention the ever-present possibility of a global takeover of self-directed sentient machines, aka Skynet, as laid out in the Terminator movies? Biasini laughs: “I more meant, how do you teach your robots to cook you dinner once they’ve delivered it?”
But the specter of both bad cooks and bad actors is something to consider. In the streets of Mountain View, where Nuro is based, its cars and devices are fairly ubiquitous. And seeing food delivery robots in San Francisco attacked by teenagers just for some wild-ass fun raises the question of whether any of this stuff will work when we’re not shut down and the streets are full and packed with people who are inevitably just going to be … people.
“It’s a risk,” Ferguson says. “But we have fail-safes, redundancies and security work so they’re not hacked. In the end, though, we believe the novelty will wear off and they’re just part of the urban landscape.”
And the enslavement of the entire human race by self-directed sentient machines?
“That’s a fear,” Ferguson laughs, “that we don’t have.”
Which, if you’ve watched any of these movies, is what they all say.