Drones and Behavior Analysis: From Pizza Delivery to Autonomy


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Fox News, among several other news outlets, recently reported on ongoing research by Domino’s pizza to deliver your food to your doorstep via drone technology — specifically an “octocopter” like the one pictured to the right.  The article states the following:

Heavily branded as the DomiCopter, the current prototype can deliver two large pizzas in about ten minutes within a four mile radius of the store. While future versions could hypothetically use GPS coordinates to deliver the pie, the existing model is piloted from the ground by someone experienced in drone flight.

T + Biscuits, the creative agency with which Domino’s is working on this project, has noted the ease with which food can be delivered via drone given the absence of roads and traffic lights.  However, much more testing is in the works and no plans have been announced to role out pizza drones to neighborhoods any time soon.

So what does this have to do with behavior analysis? Well…the spring 2012 issue of The Behavior Analyst featured Rachlin’s article titled “Making IBM’s computer, Watson, human.” Watson, of course, was the name of the computer who beat two former Jeopardy! champions in 2011, and has since been touted for its ability to learn and form hypotheses like a human.  Rachlin outlines a list of features that Watson would need to truly be “human,” which is beyond the scope of this blog post.

Rachlin’s article was followed by responses from other prominent behavior analysts, one of which came from Bill Hutchison, titled “The central role for behavior analysis in modern robotics, and vice versa.” Hutchison expands on Rachlin’s prediction of an inevitable “Watson II” that is even more humanlike by noting the following: 

…behavior analysts have a vital interest in extending their analysis further, because it suggests that the inexorable evolutionary process that plays out both in the real world and in accelerated virtual reality is destined to produce robots that will displace humans at the top of the pyramid, just as all previous species have been displaced.

It sure seems like “DomiCopters” are meant to do exactly what Hutchison predicts — to displace humans.  However, delivering pizzas is hardly the “top of the pyramid” and human-controlled drones are hardly robots. 

Enter the Taranis drone, which is Britain’s revolutionary new drone  that is supersonic, stealth, and uses it’s own computers “to perform manoeuvres, avoid threats, and identify targets.”  Though the drone will need human authorization to attack a target, Noel Sharkey, a specialist in autonomous systems at Sheffield University was quoted as saying “This is a very dangerous move.  Once it has been developed, who knows what new governments who inherit the technology will do with it.”

Hutchison noted the following in The Behavior Analyst: 

Rachlin has demonstrated how the existence of intelligent robots might stimulate thoughtful humans to adopt more effective understanding of our own nature. Behavior analysts also have much to gain from participating in the development of computer and robotic models of operant behavior: We can express and test our formulations more effectively, we can prove the sufficiency of our formulations to others, and we can play important roles in the development of valuable applied technology. The technology seems destined to threaten human well-being in the future, but that prospect should encourage more rather than less participation by behavior analysts.

What your participation in this endeavor will look like, only you can decide.  However, I will leave you with some guiding thoughts — If Jane Goodall’s finding that humans are not the only tool users put into question the very meaning of “human,” might the evolution of autonomous computer systems put into question the very meaning of “behavior”?  For that matter, might such systems put into question the meaning of “organism”?  

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

2 Comments on "Drones and Behavior Analysis: From Pizza Delivery to Autonomy"

  1. well explained.. thanks for sharing your thoughts..

  2. Very well written and thought-provoking article. Are the defining characteristics of being human or being “alive” (i.e., an organism) behavioral or biological? If behavioral,the line between humans and machines is becoming a little less clear.

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