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December 7, 2013

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.

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