Nine Things My Brain Did When I Found Out About the Amazon Drones

I don’t own a TV, which means that when Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, revealed the five-year plan to deliver packages via drone on 60 Minutes, I did not see it right away. But then the internet exploded and I watched in amazement and horror.

Oh. I watched.

And here are the things my brain did, in relatively the order it did them.

 

1. The US government would never let this happen.

Domestic drones right now are definitely definitely not approved, though the FAA has got a plan in place to integrate them. But because of the reputation that drones have as military weapons, that might take a while – Bezos said himself that the 2015 timeline is a minimum and wildly optimistic. There are HUGE privacy concerns here, being that you will give Amazon your exact GPS coordinate location. And of course the ease with which one could use this as a weapon. If the FAA approves the Amazon drones ever, I predict heavy regulation with a side of probably never going to happen. Or at least I kind of hope it never happens? At least one other person thinks the FAA will never let this happen. Then again, Bezos has a lot of money and we all know that favor can be bought because we basically live in Orwell’s 1984/The Panem Capital now. So if it does –

2. How good are these drone pilots and how sharp are those octocopter rotors?

That’s what these drones are called, by the way. Octocopters. For the eight flight-granting but perhaps death-inducing blades that they possess. Now when I first heard about the drones, I was under the mistaken impression that someone would need to fly these from some kind of super-villain-esque layer underground or something. But no. The drones fly themselves using GPS coordinates, which I find horrifying on several different levels.

The first level is that computers aren’t super smart – they can’t really evaluate grey area. Computers are smart only as far as the humans behind them are smart. And guys, let’s be honest – those of you who work with computers, you’re smart and brilliant, etc, but how many times have you pushed code to a server as finished only to discover, like, 3 mistakes that make you headdesk? Except if someone makes a mistake with these, it’ll be a headchop instead of a headdesk. What if this lands on a human by accident and savages them? And that’s not even taking into account the countless dogs, cats, birds and other fuzzy critters that I’m thinking would be harmed while futzing around with these bad boys. Or hey, how about airplanes accidentally sucking these into their engines, should they get high enough. That’ll be terrible. Also obstacles. Can the drones navigate obstacles? Also also apparently delivery drones use batteries that are prone to explosion? So we’ll have a bunch of unmanned exploding robots flying about urban areas because the radius on these is only ten miles, and slamming into buildings, people and pets therein? Sounds like a plan, Jeff! And then of course there’s the other horrifying aspect of this – yes, you need a human to program the GPS coordinates into this, but what about the humans who deliver things right now? Which lead my brain to the next conclusion –

3. How long will it take technology to make my job obsolete via robots?

When will a robot be able to write Queer Your Tech and edit the Geekery section on Autostraddle? At what point will the computers make literature for us? Will we let that happen? Will we buy books written entirely by computers based on algorithms? I actually think people would, don’t you? We’ve been making jobs obsolete forever as technology advances, it’s just par for the course when it comes to advancement. And I of course don’t advocate for halting science. But covering any kind of nerd beat comes with a) a healthy knowledge of sci-fi novel tropes and b) a certain amount of the mindspace that’s convinced we’re only steps away from enacting them. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but when it comes to creating robots that work without people, I think we should be stepping lightly.

4. Is this the beginning of the uprising? Will we look back at this moment as the moment where it all went wrong?

This bullet point is actually lifted directly from a text message I received from my girlfriend this morning, who is perpetually convinced that the robot uprising is on the horizon and that me and my tech-savvy ways are contributing to it. She’s convinced, for instance, that my WeMo will plunge me into darkness before our computers take control. So naturally, I responded by saying that no, of course it’s not. Because that is how I always respond. But now I’m not so sure.

Okay, so there’s almost no way they can actually become sentient, but don’t pretend you didn’t think this too.

5. Can those with firearms licenses shoot these things down?

Should the robots all become sentient and vow to destroy us, could we defeat them? And if we could defeat them, does that mean a clever hunter can see one of these zipping by, take it out and get some free reading material and probably some toothpaste and a pair of headphones? So that raises some new theft questions, but ones I hope Amazon doesn’t answer by making these things bulletproof. I want these things to be fallible! But at the same time I don’t because then someone who orders their life-changing copy of Gender Outlaws won’t get it because their robot delivery unit is a pile of flames somewhere? There are just so many unanswered questions here!

6. Does anyone need anything from Amazon this badly?

Then again, does the person ordering their life-changing copy of Gender Outlaws really need it within 30 minutes via drone? What will happen to us as a people if everything is instant gratification? Then again, people have been worrying about the pace of life for a very long time as it gets faster and faster. Still, I can’t imagine needing anything from Amazon badly enough to require it within half an hour of it occurring to me. But then again I say that from my very specific position in life/this world/the universe. Prove me wrong? Anyone?

7. How terrifying is it that Amazon wants to be the supplier of everything?

Let’s step aside for a hot sec and analyze the fuck out of Amazon Vice President Dave Clark’s statement: “Anything you want on Earth, you’re gonna get from us.”

DO. NOT. WANT. I seriously don’t want to order everything from Amazon. I want to have the opportunity to support local business owners and local chains that are extremely good for my damn local economy. I want to walk into a book store! And you know what? I currently don’t have a local bookstore. Because they can’t compete. With Amazon.

8. …Amazon already is the supplier of everything.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Amazon ensures that independent businesses can do their thang, art can be self published – in many ways, it makes publishing and commerce accessible. Heck, we have an Amazon affiliate store and that’s hella cool! Shopping at Amazon can support your fave independently owned queer website. But at the same time the CIA is getting a private cloud on an Amazon server. The. C.I.A. Amazon controls a hefty portion of the internet, and thus a hefty portion of. Well. Everything. You can get lube on Amazon. You can get old DVDs of Boy Meets World on Amazon. You can auto-deliver paper towels via Amazon and that’s just really fucking convenient and who can argue with that? Ahhhh! THE TROUBLES OF LIVING IN A DIGITAL AGE! GREY AREA! THINGS ARE HARD! But anyways, back to this crazy drone thing –

 

9. Does anyone else think that these just look really creepy, even if nothing bad happens?

Likely, nothing terrible will happen. I mean, likely this is nothing more than a publicity stunt because likely it will either a) not happen b) take so long to happen that this is nowhere near what it’s going to look like. Or! Or it’s exactly what they said, and it’s a last-mile solution. That means a delivery human will drive a truck out into a rural area and release, like, five or six of these things to help with the last bit of delivery. That’s a thing that could happen too. Or! OR! Someone will realize that with all the product damage and accidents that are bound to happen with this, it is more cost effective to hire someone to drive around in a van with some Amazon packages. But even if nothing else…

…it’s smiling.

It’s smiling at me.

Like it knows something.

Like it’s ready to feast on the blood and dreams of the human race.

via ABC

via ABC

Is it coming for us?

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Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 269 articles for us.

104 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    aaaah these are very good points ! hopefully if they decide to launch this feature in a few years they’ll make sure to cover all these bases. This is just a prototype at the moment really – things can change a lot in 5 years :)

  2. Thumb up 16

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    i didn’t realize the radius was only 10 miles.. this means that if you need a thing (and you would have to be in a pretty populated area anyway to be able to use this service), you know what would be less terrifying? GOING TO A GODDAMN STORE AND BUYING IT. then again i’ve been saying this about READING A GODDAMN BOOK instead of using a tablet (“oh no the battery on my kindle is dead!” “huh, know what that never happens to? A BOOK.”) and i am apparently just a cranky old dinosaur.

    i hate these things though. like, really hate them.

  3. Thumb up 1

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    Copy and pasting a comment I made on Facebook, because I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this:

    On the one hand, it’s terrifying and I hate that this would mean the existence of even more machines that could potentially be used for surveillance. Also, it seems like they obviously want to develop this in order to make more money.

    But on the other hand, the technology behind this has to be really cool (it’s like GPS – but in three dimensions? how are they coding this?). It seems like the kind of thing that could reduce operating and delivery costs by eliminating the need for actual people, which could theoretically be used to for a lot of good. Also, this seems like it could have many other uses – could the technology be used in areas that aren’t easily accessible or safe for people to go to? How could this improve quality of life for (or even save the lives of) people who are doing research in remote and inaccessible locations, people who are in the military, etc…?

    However, since this whole thing is being orchestrated by a large corporation, I am not exactly going to be waiting with bated breath for this kind of thing to happen. TLDR; the technology behind this is probably really cool, and it could be used for lots of good, but probably won’t be.

    Also, I totally understand the “taking jobs away from real people” discussion, but as a counterargument — what about the people who are engineering and designing these types of technology?

    • Thumb up 2

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      re: “Also, I totally understand the “taking jobs away from real people” discussion, but as a counterargument — what about the people who are engineering and designing these types of technology?”

      I’m the kind of gal that advocates a balance of professions – some people have no interest in being an engineer, or coding or programming or designing. Some can’t afford the training or cultural signifiers to succeed. Loads of reasons why we can’t have an imbalance one way or the other.

      re: the tech being cool. IT MUST BE SO COOL! I actually really wanted to do this article more on the tech aspect, but understandably there’s not a lot out there on the tech. Smart move on Amazon’s part to play that stuff close to the vest.

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        Aren’t we technically taking more than just the drivers job away? What about the company that manufactures and fixes their trucks(cause as you know less drivers, less trucks needed, which means less repairs required). Then again these would also mean jobs for people who can do on the spot repairs if anything should happen.

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        There’s an aerospace engineer below in the comments who says she’s worked on ones for use in inspecting factory chimneys, just FYI! Read further down for more info re: drones doing things that would be dangerous or inaccessible for people.

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      There’s just one option missing:
      “We attempted a drone delivery but accidentally chopped off your/your neighbors head/limbs.”

      Plus I’m sure there will be a voice yelling “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby” with a robo-austrian accent.

  4. Thumb up 13

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    The first thing I thought when the social internets exploded about this was “this must be some Onion shit” then I saw that it was 60 Minutes and I thought “Bezos is trolling us, right?” and then a terrifying octoknife death machine crashed through my window and I’ve been crying in a ball ever since.

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    So cool autostraddle is covering this, I was just discussing it with colleagues! So many feelings:

    As an aerospace engineer that has actually worked on octocopters I squealed when I read the news, but then I got to thinking and arrived at almost the same conclusions.

    First, I want to say that they aren’t that unsafe, and can actually do pretty cool things

    http://youtu.be/AiCFtmdrvHM

    But I agree that I don’t want them flying over me… with the amount of orders amazon must have, the sky would be swarmed. The buzzing sound is scary as hell, I’d even say perfect for the upcoming machine revolution!

    Also the first point is so true, no government will allow this. The bureaucracy in the Netherlands regarding drones is super restrictive that it even put the company I was working in at risk of having no business.

    And lastly, if this becomes a thing, buying books written by robots doesn’t seem that far away…

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      Wait, you actually worked on these?

      How much can you say about them? I assume you signed an NDA of some sort – but can you tell us specifics about their functionality? Metal blades? When you say buzzing – how loud are these things?

      • Thumb up 3

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        Well not the amazon ones specifically, but in similar ones yes :)

        I did sign an NDA, but I can say that most octocopter drones come with plastic blades. They rotate about 5x faster than a normal fan so it can chop some fingers off. I’d guess if they really go through with this, they’ll implement some kind of safety feature.

        But even after that, because they are so light, fast winds can make them seriously unstable. We had to postpone test flights several times due to too much wind. So I wouldn’t feel safe with several above my head, the weather is too unpredictable!

        As for the buzzing, just watch the video on my comment.
        It’s where I say “pretty cool things” but the html link isn’t very visible compared to the normal text.

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        everything?? haha that’s so much

        I’ll tell you what I know (which btw isn’t that much, I worked with them for a 3-month internship). Basically they can have 4 (quad), 6 (hexa) or 8 (octo-copter) rotors, with the 8 rotor option being the most stable one, since they allow for more flexibility in maneuvres and also have fault proof systems where if one of the rotor fails it can still hold its own.

        For the flight tests we would want a wind speed lower than 49km/h (that’s 30mph), higher than that and it becomes less stable. It can still fly but it demands more of the rotors, and doesn’t fly as smoothly or won’t do what you tell it in order to stabilize itself.

        I work more on the programming side of things, basically the code that makes them stable and fly on their own, so I can’t really say much about their aerodynamics. But these codes basically enable them to fly with different weights, rotor failure, winds and things like that.

        The ones we operated at our company could fly on their own, but every time they were being tested or used there were two people working on a ground station and commanding them via remote control. Also as per the rules, the place were they flew had to be 50m (164ft) away from any buildings or groups of people.

        The company used them to inspect factory chimneys for cracks or fields for agriculture, so they can be used for good! I see too much hate on drones ;)

        Feel free to ask any questions you still have

  6. Thumb up 3

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    Saw this on TV literally 30 minutes ago. It just reinforces my belief that Amazon is the absolute worst. That drone thing, added to the fact that they destroy local bookstores and that they barely pay any taxes in Europe (don’t know how it works in the US) because their home office is supposedly located in Luxemburg. I’ve recently decided I would no longer buy anything from Amazon.

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    As someone who flies RC planes and other things (including copters)I really get annoyed with all this fear mongering! I thought AS was above it (pun intended) but i guess not. Unless this was all a huge tongue in cheek article? In case you really want to scare some people these are all over the US with hobbyists at the controls, and a lot of them already use GPS and waypoints to fly far beyond line of sight.

  8. Thumb up 11

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    ali, this is pretty much the funniest thing I’ve read in forever. i’m in tears. laura just said “oh hi crazy girl” cuz i’m laughing with that much crazy.
    i love this. i hope it goes viral times a million, i hope a drone delivers this article to the asshole who said women aren’t funny, and then all the drones deliver it to all the asshole who agreed with that statement.
    and then i hope a drone delivers me to you so that we can hug.

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    honestly whenever i read about tech stuff like this — the kind that feels like it has an air of apocalypse about it, which, as i get older and tech gets smarter, is starting to feel like everything tbh — i think of the final dollhouse episode. anyone here a dollhouse fan? there must be a few, right? anyway when the small child who has been reprogrammed with caroline’s brain says “kids playing with matches and they burned the house down” in reference to the fact that technology literally brought about the apocalypse and then she starts climbing down the ladder to safe haven to get away from it all oh god i could start crying/hyperventilating right now…

    anyway that’s what i think about whenever i hear stuff like this. so now obviously i’m shaking and contemplating throwing my laptop away.

  10. Thumb up 4

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    Is it weird that my first thought was “Oh no! There won’t be anymore UFO sitings!” Then, “The aliens will come and take over because every one will just think it’s a drone!”

    Basically, Amazon is made up of aliens, this was probably their plan the entire time. No one would ever suspect a book dealer.

  11. Thumb up 2

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    I have a lot of feelings about Amazon and am probably more afraid of them taking over the planet, although sentient Amazon drone-bots (with lasers!) is probably a close second.

    Amazon is a headache for investors right now (not that I care) and is effectively running on zero profit right now because they’re reinvesting EVERYTHING they make back into the business. New warehouses, new marketplaces, more everything. I read a fascinating article recently about how Bezos is more concerned about having 99.99999% marketshare than making money, because the long-term implications of controlling a ton of commercial traffic is the ultimate ability to set pricing, aka near-monopolies are not so much fun for the rest of us.

    I’m not a crazy conspiracy theorist, but yeah. Their warehouse employees make so little money, they have a potentially evil business plan, and as cool as drones are, they probably still won’t deliver to my apartment. Buy stuff, but maybe try somewhere else.

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    You know what Amazon could spend all those millions of R&D dollars on? More people to deliver their packages. More trucks to deliver their packages. More warehouses to house the packages that are going to be delivered.

    All those things would help decrease the waiting period from what it currently is (about 2 business days) to their ideal 30 minutes.

    I agree about life moving too fast. But seriously, technology isn’t always the answer. This same end could be achieved by different means.

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      You see, now you have me imagining Amazon getting shot down by the FAA, and deciding to build a series of private light rails where closed-in versions of those old-timey rail carts flit about delivering packages anywhere and everywhere within two hours.

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    I saw this last night while doing homework. My first thoughts were “That’s SO COOL. Too bad they’re never going to let it happen.” Of course, my passion is in robotics, so I’m a bit biased.

    I see the potential drawbacks to this kind of technology – security, safety, etc. – I’m not totally naive. At some point I have to stick to my optimist roots and hope that things will be used for good. Even if this plan never actually becomes reality, just the research into making these things self-guided could advance so many things, from autonomous vehicles to medical nanobots. It’s unfortunate that Amazon is probably going to lock that research down or license the technology at exorbitant prices.

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    Couldn’t you already do point 5? Like just follow a UPS/FedEx/Postal Service truck and then pick up the package if the person they delivered to isn’t there? Or just pick up your neighbors package(pending they don’t have a security camera and no one is watching)? Just saying.

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    I for one look forward to reading machine generated literature. Lets face it, eventually, it’s gonna be way better than anything we could ever create. Who needs a job when robots do all the work. I’d rather spend my time having fun in a queer commune and not have to worry about such obsolete contrivances as money. I give it fifty years tops before machine intelligence surpasses humanity’s, and unless we fuck it up somehow, It’s gonna be AWESOME.

    These drones however are horribly impractical, and even if they did somehow work you just know their gonna become obsolete within five minuets. Personal nano-factories that can make literally anything on the spot, now that’s the future.

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    Nah, I think Google Glass was the moment that we will look back on as the beginning of the end. Or the beginning of Cyborgs that will eventually rise up and use these drones to kill/control us.

    Also, this is one good reason to live in the Midwest, because I’m sure (with the exception of Chicago, maybe) that they won’t come here until years after they hit the big coastal cities. Hopefully by then I will be living in my cabin in the woods.

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      Cyborgs are well on their way to disillusionment. from completely non-violent queers here talking about taking up arms, to attacks, to popular opinion supporting cutting their bio-aspect off health services(one example would be Sapiens Anonym, though there are less immediately associable but actually lethal instances). The only thing you haven’t done so far to outright follow Terminator scenario – you haven’t kneejerked at something actually powerful, like a recursive AGI or a bunch of military cyborgs. Yet. If the sum total of bioessentialist intent published and accessible online already would not be enough to skew the strategic calculations of an AGI.

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        Oh man that sucks!

        essentially the documentary is about working conditions for “pickers” the people who select the products from the distribution centres, Panorama got a spy to be employed as a picker and then looked at his working conditions, pickers working on a count down for how long they have to collect each item from the shelves around the like 6 mile warehouse and then have a target for how many items they should pick in a hour which all seems fine until you see the targets they got a spy who was a runner and the only way for him to reach the targets was to run around the distribution centre constantly for 13 hours otherwise he would miss his targets, he couldn’t keep that up(obviously)and after 3 months was fired. Amazon work employees like robots until they either give up or a fired its rediclous and totally exploitative, also the Amazon centres were all part government funded so YAY.

        on another Amazon is scary note i was watching another documentary about machiavellianism and capitalism and politics and whether it was a good or bad thing and like the whole documentary they kept saying that Amazon was like the most Machiavellian organisation ever with all the Amazon market places and affiliates. Here’s a link that guess you wont be able to watch again ( I’m sorry ) but maybe some U.K folks can watch it!!

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03kqdnb/imagine…_Winter_2013_Whos_Afraid_of_Machiavelli/

        The moral of the story is don’t be tempted by the super saver delivery and try to buy from the market place and with affiliates ( personally i think Autostraddle is the best choice!!) and it’s all slightly less scary!!!

        STILL AMAZON SCARY.

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    Still, I can’t imagine needing anything from Amazon badly enough to require it within half an hour of it occurring to me. But then again I say that from my very specific position in life/this world/the universe. Prove me wrong? Anyone?”

    Very small businesses, say 1 to a handful of people, maybe working out of a house/apartment. Probably don’t have the money to keep overstock on hand and can’t afford the opportunity cost of a principal stopping all work to go to the store, especially if they’re on any sort of deadline.

    At least with Amazon’s drones they have to be big enough to carry a fair amount of weight. Higher end surveillance drones are now smaller than a fingertip and intentionally resemble insects.

    I fear Amazon’s initiative is going to accelerate how quickly local and private yahoos get their own drones/RC devices. The bigger the market, the faster drones will get smaller and cheaper.

    Can you imagine drones the size of an insect in the hands of someone like Joe Apaio, George Zimmerman, or The Chosen Few of every megachurch ever so they can surveil our neighborhoods? You know, to keep us all safe because they only have public safety and our welfare in mind.

    And then there are the self-recharging, perching (i.e. hanging off the side of a building) drones:

    They could also use the landing as a chance to crawl or creep closer to a window for better observation, or simply hang out and conduct surveillance on the area for days or weeks.

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