Forget robot overlords, humankind will get finished off by IoT

Your bot looks cute but it's easy to crack

Robot on road photo via Shutterstock

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Car horns symphonise accompanied by a chorus of yelling cyclists as I shimmy on foot through oncoming traffic. Strictly, I come dancing on to the tarmac, cavorting between the lanes, prancing out of the way of motorbikes and generally tripping the traffic light fantastic.

Moments earlier, I had been cutting capers along the pavement, trying to dodge the shuffling dead of oncoming pedestrians whose universal attention was buried six foot deep into their smartphones as they zig-zagged directly into my path one after another every 1.5 seconds.

Brains? I don't think so.

To be fair, some of them are evidently tourists being led in circles around London by Google Maps' illogical walking directions or, in the case of Apple Maps, wondering why they are being led through a street plan of Inverness. The rest are local zomboids with their heads down – checking messages, sending emails, reading fake news and trying to work out why their free Spotify accounts insist on playing every song in existence apart from the very one they chose to listen to.

Such creatures no longer trouble me as I have learnt to predict the snaking trajectory of their communal stagger. What forced me off the kerb and into the road this time wasn't human.

Recent events in London, Nice and elsewhere demonstrate that keeping to designated walkways is no protection from a determined motorist with a pot belly and a dark agenda. I'm still curious to learn why last week's fat bastard was referred to as a "bodybuilder" when evidently his supplier of nutritional supplements was not so much Holland & Barrett as Ben & Jerry's.

But I digress. Here I am, a pedestrian forced into the road against my will – not by my fellow negligent pavement-bashers or by me recoiling at the stench of their rotting intellect but by a humble robot.

As I have remarked before, although pavements were intended for use by people making their way about on foot, they are getting to be increasingly congested with wheeled vehicles, with the addition of scooter-riders, skateboarders, cyclists and motorised disability vehicles to the regular throng.

Now it looks as if the threat of delivery bots being added to this list is becoming very real indeed, because that's what caused me to stumble into the road.

Foolish me – there was no need for me to take evasive action. All I needed to do was stand still and the bot would have driven around me.

I'll remember that in future. I look forward to stopping in my tracks every time a trundling pedal bin on wheels and waggling antenna comes my way. It'll only add a quarter of an hour to every journey I make on foot, no worries.

What I do worry about is the welfare of these poor little delivery bots. I confidently forecast vast numbers of them to get kicked, bricked or nicked before they ever reach their allocated destinations.

A colleague confirmed as much when he spotted this cute Starship bot making its way along a suitably open pedestrian zone.

Starship delivery bot seen in Elephant and Castle, London

Photo copyright © Keith Martin 2017

According to the fellow who was trailing the device during its test run, they had considered but rejected the idea of building solar panels into the top. Why? Because they expect the bots to get physically abused from time to time, and it would be cheaper to replace broken plastic lids than smashed solar panels.

I imagine that’ll turn out to be the least of their troubles when such things eventually swarm our granite slabs. With UK internet retail sales currently worth more than £133bn annually, and let's say a quarter of these are small goods that could be delivered by robot, you'd only have to break into 1 per cent of the automated courier bots to rake in £325m of stolen goods per year.

Perhaps they should call it a stand-and-delivery service as highway robbery returns to civilised streets after a hiatus that lasted hundreds of years. There's market disruption for you.

And with £0.3bn on offer, that's a lot of lupins for the picking by a determined digital Dennis Moore.

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But surely, you cry, a delivery bot is a mobile safe on wheels, built to be difficult to crack. Besides, aren't they designed to emit a piercing alarm when interfered with?

Great. Not only will I have to dance around avoiding the little buggers every few paces, 1 per cent of them will run around screaming like two-year-olds – which as every parent knows is approximately measurable at 172dB.

Even so, there are less crude approaches that digital highwaymen can take than the crowbar. David Jinks, head of consumer research at delivery broker ParcelHero, reckons criminals might try using EMI jammers to cut off a delivery bot's signals as it passes and whisk it away before either the owners or the robot itself knows what's going on.

"By diverting delivery drones into Faraday cage-style boxes," he says, "the modern-day highwayman will be able to block tracking signals and webcam pictures indicating where the delivery has been taken."

That's possible, I suppose, but surely even more likely is that he'll hire a couple of programmers to hijack the bot in the easiest way: simply break into its IoT-enabled software.

As we've seen time and time again, the Internet of Things is demonstrably as robust and secure as a kitten crossing a motorway. If you can effortlessly take over an industrial dishwasher or change the ambient temperature in someone else's car, I hardly think a mobile beer cooler will present much more of a challenge.

Once the dark forces of criminal behaviour enter the scene, I can see a day when these robots will get hijacked by zombified smartphone-enhanced highwaymen on every corner and eventually drive the rest of us off the kerb and into oncoming traffic – both literally and metaphorically.

Oh that's just dandy, highwayman. Thanks.

Robots won't kill off humankind. IoT will do that.

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Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would prefer to share footspace with a trundling delivery bot to the daily risk of being scalped by a failing delivery drone tumbling from the sky. Besides, what's the point of robbery when nothing is worth taking? As a great man once said: Da diddly qua qua.

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