Shopping with Robot Hands

It’s no secret that Sage and I enjoy spending time together a lot. Since 1995, when I go on business trips we spend most of the time connected via chat. When I got my first cell phone in 1997, I would play along with the Jeopardy episode she was watching as I drove home. (This was before most of us realized that driving and using our phones was a seriously bad idea – and to be fair the Philadelphia traffic barely moved)

Now with the pandemic, I’m pretty much the only person going out in the world and seeing other humans, picking up groceries, take out or pet food. It occurred to us last night that thanks to technology I didn’t have to go shopping alone. And so I biked to the grocery store, put my headset on, turned on my video and while I walked through the aisles of the store, Sage saw the store through my eyes and by voice command operated my hands to pick up whatever things she saw that she wanted.

We had great fun and it actually worked better than a normal trip with my having someone at home to check on demand to see if we needed something or for Sage to be able to send me to get something she just remembered. As I am going through the store, Sage said she felt like she was able to shop with robotic arms that responded to her voice commands.

Using my phone for her eyes did have some odd side effects. Sometimes it would cause seasickness as I walked quickly through an aisle. Sometimes while I standing looking at pasta and holding my phone at my side, I’d hear Sage say things like “I now know way more about that man’s bottom than I wanted to.” And sometimes holding the phone at a strange angle as I walked I’d learn strange things about the store like the fact that high above the frozen food cases is the word “Succulent” just written in script, completely out of context.

At one point Sage laughed and as I held the phone at my side said “This is almost the view I have when I’m at the store.” And so I put the camera at my eye level and walked through the store giving her, for the first time, the perspective of a person almost a foot taller than her. “If I’d seen that before I might’ve had more interest in high heels – and have more back problems today as well.”

When I got home, Daegan took the grocery trailer from me and as he started unloading it said “Wow, I really enjoyed that ‘grocery store simulation’ Sage was running on her computer.

As I rode home I thought about this technology-enabled experience, giving someone a 100% safe outing to the store in the middle of a pandemic and wondered what this all would’ve been like had it happened in the 1980’s. How much are we all benefitting from technology to work from home, to order necessities to be delivered, to give us news or to keep us connected to one another? Without the ability to put library books on hold or download them to an e-reader would I be limited to only those books I have and whatever happened to be on TV? Would I miss out on important information, the ability to connect with and help vulnerable people or to find someone to make a bunch of cloth masks for my family? There is no good time for a pandemic but this might be one of the best times in history for us to have run in to it.

10 thoughts on “Shopping with Robot Hands

  1. Techonoligies are helping us for sure in so many ways but at the same time they are putting lot of pressure on parents from not so well off background mostly in developing countries. Online classes have created more than enough mess.

    1. This is so true, Rupali. It’s definitely created a two-tiered (or probably many more than two) pandemic experience. For the well off, in many cases things are inconvenient but mostly OK with even a few things that are improved. For the vulnerable, it has made things incredibly difficult. In some places people are able to help but it’s not enough. For example, the adult literacy centre where I volunteer was able to get laptops for the adult learners so they could continue to learn and improve their reading and writing skills. But still we have almost 500 tents in parks here because our shelters are too dangerous and too full for many. I often wonder how we can change this. At night sometimes I can hear the sounds of people in Ferraris and Lamborghinis cars that sometimes cost several hundred thousand dollars racing on the highway while someone is sleeping under the bridge they are crossing.

      1. The extent of problems in developing countries are beyond control. The unprivileged are not of any concern to goverments. A sad reality.

      2. Just the very little I’ve seen tells me what you say is completely true. Where to even start? The distance between “haves” and “have nots” is so huge it boggles the mind.

      3. Exactly, we can take care of our part but we too have limits and that’s make us sad. I mean those who try to see outside our comfort zone.

    1. Thanks, you too!

      The way I see it it’s all about probability. Every encounter you have is a roll of the dice based on whether or not they’re infectious and then all the precautions they take (distance, masks, washing) and environment (room size, airflow). At home alone we’re not really rolling the dice every. Our chances of infection approach zero. My chances increase if I go to the grocery store just but I’m OK with how much they increase because I and others (at least in the store I prefer) generally follow appropriate precautions. So I’m rolling the dice by going there but instead of a 1 in 4 chance like it might be if we behaved like it was 2019, it’s likely a 1 in 200 chance. Vaccines are finally starting to roll out here so once we factor that in all our chances go up by a lot. It’ll take a while, though. They’re saying it will be around September before we are all vaccinated.

      1. Well said. I feel 2021 will be better but still it’s not going to be normal. Also you never know what surprises we will encounter. Any which ways, the COVID has at least taught people to think differently and not take some things for granted. Take care, Todd

      2. Absolutely true. To some extent I’m sure it will never be fully the same. Even if we have an effective vaccine and completely eliminate the virus, as you said, it means we may not take some things for granted. I think many of us will think more about how we behave around others when we’re ill. Do we still go to work? Do we do like several Asian countries and wear a mask until our cold is over? And what will this do for routine human interaction. Many here used to greet everyone with a hug and some countries even greet friends with a kiss. I’m not sure that will come back soon.

        But what I hope will also stay in the “new normal” is the sense of connection many of us are getting with others outside our neighbourhood. We’re hanging out with friends and family around the globe, taking classes in different cities, watching shows in different countries. This doesn’t just open our mind, it makes things more accessible for people in rural areas and to those who have accessibility challenges. There are many people who now are able to go to storytelling shows that they otherwise couldn’t go to because the venue had stairs, for example.

      3. well explained. A lot has changed. Some for better for sure. Every situation closes some doors and opens another. Have a great new year celeb

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