The Stranger would like to hereby extend our greetings and pledge obedience to our coming robot overlords. If you’ve been out and about lately in any of Seattle’s flatter neighborhoods, you might’ve seen brightly-colored two-wheeled robots tootling down the sidewalk like they own the place — and perhaps, someday, they will.
The robots are called "Gita" (with a soft G, so get ready for pronunciation fights reminiscent of the GIF wars), and Piaggio, the company that makes Vespa scooters, makes them. They’re basically simple cargo-bots, capable of lugging 45 pounds of stuff and then following a human companion — all for the reasonable price of $3,250.
Here at The Stranger offices we’re obsessed with these weird little things — keep your eyes out for a Mudede piece later this afternoon about the robots, as we’ve been puzzling over them together for the last week. One of our biggest head-scratchers: How is this three thousand dollars better than pushing a cart by hand?
“We’re doing something new for the first time so, I understand why people are unsure,” says Lisa Bagaco-Lewis, Chief Marketing Officer of Piaggio’s Fast Forward division.
To be honest, as someone who’s covered tech and transportation for many years, a lot of Piaggio’s claims about the Gita raise red flags. Approximately 99% of technologies that claim to be THE WAY OF THE FUTURE are hilarious flops: Remember the pre-release hype around the Segway? It was supposedly going to change the way entire cities were designed — haha, instead of just changing the way tour companies and security guards travel short distances. And then there was Google Glass, which was going to change the way we look at the world, instead of basically being a Segway for your face.
And then of course there are all the ways that tech companies re-invent existing technologies, only more expensive. A couple of ex-Googlers re-invented vending machines as a slick machine called a “Bodega”; the “Juicero” re-invented squeezing an orange or buying a juice box; Soylent re-invented the SlimFast products I used to see advertised during workout shows in the '80s. (Weight-loss tech grifters deserve their own special circle of hell.) Every 16 months a new Silicon Valley company comes up with a transportation revolution that’s just …. a bus.
So I was on high alert when Bagaco-Lewis told me that Gita users “are more mindful and more intentional about their day-to-day,” which is the sort of Goop-y promise that can mean whatever the listener wants it to. A $45 hand cart probably makes you more mindful of where you're going, too; how does a robot help?
Some slick promo videos from the company show two Seattle residents making use of the machines — one transporting merch from her local frame shop, another strolling around South Lake Union with a jolly little robot keeping pace. Neither of these seems particularly different from wearing a backpack, except that now you can only walk where there are ramps, and you can’t go up hills steeper than 16 degrees.
But Bagaco-Lewis described a use case that actually seems to make sense. She lives two blocks from the beach (must be nice) and has two young children. Anyone who’s tried to lug a kid anywhere knows how much STUFF that can involve — and how important it is to have your hands free — and I completely get why it’s helpful to just stick all the beach stuff into a little rolling robot.
The robots may also be useful for people with special mobility needs — they can follow wheelchairs, Bagaco-Lewis says, though I’m not sure how you’d get it to follow you into one of those lifts next to staircases.
Then there’s the pilot program they’re running at a handful of airports (Minneapolis, JFK, Philadelphia, Cincinnati): While you wait for your flight, you can order your food via an app, and then a person walks over to your gate with a robot full of food following behind. Bagaco-Lewis says this facilitates contactless delivery, but I’m still not sure it’s any better than a cart.
The word “mindfulness” kept coming up in our conversation. When asked if drivers could see the robot in a crosswalk over the hood of a car: “It’s about the height of a large dog or small child. We’d recommend mindful walking the same way you would if you were walking with your child or a dog.”
When asked what would stop it from rolling over a dog’s tail: “It goes back to mindfulness. The same way you’d think about a bike or stroller, you’d just want to make sure you’re being cautious of those things.”
When asked how it’s better than a hand cart: “[Users] find themselves more mindful, more intentful.”
And then there’s the acute mindfulness — which I guess is another way of saying “anxiety” — of theft. Bagaco-Lewis says they’ve never had a report of a Gita being stolen, maybe because there aren’t very many of them out in the wild. (She declined to disclose sales numbers.) But as they become more common, it seems like it would be hard for a thief to resist a $3,250 device that only weighs about 50 pounds — easily carry-able — and is packed with fancy electronic guts, including batteries, and has no geo-location capabilities.
Bagaco-Lewis says that when she brings her Gita to the beach with the kids, she locks its lid with an accompanying mobile app and leaves it sitting on the cement at the edge of the beach, since they can’t travel on sand. I’m not sure, in a major city, I’d be so cavalier about leaving three thousand dollars just sitting around.
But to be fair, this is just their first publicly released version of these particular bots, and future iterations might become more practical — and, importantly, cheap.
“My hope is you’ll continue to see good things come from us,” Bagaco-Lewis says. “We really created something to be collaborative with humans and help them in their day to day lives.”
I don’t think I’ve ever wished that I could be more mindful about wearing a backpack. For now, buying a Gita sounds like paying $3,250 to become a robot’s assistant, letting it decide where I’m going. Sorry, I can’t cross the street mid-block, there’s no ramp there. Sorry, I have to detour a mile around this hill because its slope is 20%. Sorry, I can’t go to the gym when I run errands because there’s no place to leave the robot at the gym, unless I want it to follow me around from workout machine to workout machine. Sorry, I can’t take the bus, unless I want two dozen passengers to be pissed at me for making the bus do the whole kneeling thing so my little robot can climb aboard.
I suppose you could call that state of obeying the needs of your robot “mindfulness,” and there are certainly cases where I can see a little cargo-bot being helpful; but in nearly all of those situations, I’d rather have $3,250 in my pocket than a robot carrying my lunch for me.
I’m reminded of the time, many years ago, when digital projectors were first being rolled out in theaters for the Star Wars prequels. At the time, an executive proudly proclaimed that the technology was brand new, and was only going to get better and better as time went on. His way of expressing that: “This is the worst that these movies are ever going to look!”