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All advanced civilisations have to ask themselves how to best optimize their supply lines. Handing over that duty to AI would give an efficient and most importantly an impartial delivery system. People are just numbers to the machines, they don't pick favourites... or do they? What's the loophole?

The delivery drones could allocate resources based on the number of citizens. One package per head. However, this may not be efficient. A child has higher caloric needs than an older person. Different jobs require varying levels of effort. Individuals have varying metabolic rates and so on... So the drones would profile individuals over time to best serve their caloric needs and optimize resource allocation. This would usher in an age of abundance. However enough isn't always enough. The system might be perfect but the people aren't. There's always people trying to get a bigger share of the pie.

So the question stands: why can't this autonomous world hunger-solving system not work? What's the flaw? How do you cheat the super smart hive-minded pizza delivery droids to get seconds? (Not just pizza. It's a figure of speech.)

EDIT: The AI is tasked with "feed every human being" and is left to its own devices. It will basically take over the entire food industry all the way from producing to processing and delivering. "Drone" in this case refers to all droids or robots handling the work and not just the UAVs we are used to. (Friendly reminder that this question is set in the future.)

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    $\begingroup$ drones are for local delivery not bulk shipment, which means the bulk of your food infrastructure is not drones. Also who is paying to move all this food around, drones and electricity are not free. the difficulty with word hunger is not last mile delivery. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 18, 2023 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ How is the hive mind getting its starting and ongoing information? How does it know when people are born, when they die, when they are burning lots of energy training for an ultramarathon and when they are spending all their time on the couch watching TV? Without knowing how the hive mind makes its (supposedly optimal) decisions, we have no way to say how to game the system. "Kill your roommate then keep accepting his food deliveries" or "fake a pregnancy" or simply saying to a drone "I'm still hungry" could all be valid answers. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ If its not too late, can you clarify: a) Is the drone system following the rules of its programmers, or is it making its own goals and priorities? b) Can the drones ensure and confirm that food packages get to the desired recipient? c) Who is providing the food? There may be sufficient food on a worldwide basis, but it's still not free. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ Well, since one way to solve world hunger is to not have any people to be hungry, I'm not sure I want a bunch of intelligent drones making decisions... $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    May 19, 2023 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Because the issue of 'world hunger' is not one of short to medium distance delivery logistics .. hmm, maybe edit your response to the first comment into the question to make it clear you're not just talking about Amazon delivery drones but an entire automated warehouse and transport system with larger 'drones' for bulk shipping .. where's the food come from? automated farms and food processing? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    May 20, 2023 at 7:08

14 Answers 14

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People are just numbers to the machines, they don't pick favourites... or do they? What's the loophole?

The loophole is that drones don't appear out of a mystical other space fully programmed and ready to go solve problems. People build them, and people program them, and people do that to solve problems that those people think exist.

So the drones would profile individuals over time to best serve their caloric needs and optimize resource allocation.

No, people would profile individuals to optimize resource allocation. They might offload some of the heavy number-crunching onto computers or drones, but the people are the ones deciding what is "optimal". Maybe we decide that because elderly people can survive on fewer calories per day, they should get fewer. Or maybe we decide that elderly people have other issues to deal with (health problems, perhaps) so we should be generous and provide them with as much food as they want. Maybe we decide that not all elderly people are necessarily alike, and ones who have contributed to their society (in whatever manner we choose to define "contributed") get extra and the ones who didn't get bread and water.

So if you want to get more from the drones, you have to get into the minds of the people running them. If those people happen to be local, then maybe the best way into their minds is bribery, but if not, your best bet is to try to conform to whatever profile they decided was worth allocating resources towards. Maybe that's by faking achievements, or faking your age, or a disability (a time-honored fraud indeed), or maybe a family structure - whatever clever system people come up with to disburse food, you can come up with an equally clever way to fit into it.

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    $\begingroup$ @LiveInAmbeR "drones don't appear out of a mystical other space fully programmed and ready to go solve problems. People build them, and people program them, and people do that to solve problems that those people think exist." $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    May 19, 2023 at 7:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan That just introduce an extra step. AI systems don't appear out of a mystical other space fully programmed.... $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    May 19, 2023 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ AI systems are trained, what's their training data? $\endgroup$
    – Lie Ryan
    May 19, 2023 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Drone: My programming has determined that you require nutrition. Eat. You have 20 seconds to comply. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @KalMadda see earlier comments. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    May 19, 2023 at 21:55
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Cadence has the right of it. If world hunger was a logistics and supply issue, engineers would run all the charities to solve it. Instead, your drones will have to contend with all the very human issues causing it.

First off is the programmers of the AI. The system they set up is bound to have inherent biases... https://towardsdatascience.com/dont-blame-the-ai-it-s-the-humans-who-are-biased-d01a3b876d58

The people receiving the food may be more greedy than hungry, then claim malnourishment later. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.kron4.com/news/father-and-son-convicted-in-food-stamp-fraud-case/amp/

There may be others who think they deserve it more. https://reliefweb.int/report/libya/who-humanitarian-supplies-libya-intercepted-and-diverted

And what even is food? Pigeons and dandelions are food. Do we eat them? No. Food is everywhere. How do we decide what to eat? https://www.wildedible.com/foraging

Edit: after looking at your description of the rules the system would follow. I think the above might be particularly relevant if the drones should decide to optimize in the direction of regarding all fields and gardens containing edible crops as sources of food for distribution. Doubly so if it forgets to pay attention to owner consent.

Not to mention religion and its restrictions. Can the system handle someone who suddenly wants to eat kosher? Halal? What about fasting? Does the system have a response to the guy who says "take this back where you came from" ? Could the system end up with a surplus it doesn't even know about?

And there's always the guy with the dead grandma that he's pretending to still be talking care of to get her medical payments from the government.

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    $\begingroup$ You personally might not, but plenty of people do eat pigeons and/or dandelions. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @GeoffreyBrent Which really compounds the problem. Is the AI going to account for every dietary variation across the planet? What does it consider a substitute and what doesn't it? Where does it draw the line between a culturally recognized taboo and some people just being picky eaters? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    May 20, 2023 at 17:48
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Food is not the Problem

Modern famines are not caused by a lack of food. Food is easy to grow. Stick some vegetables in the dirt and they make more of themselves.

Modern famines are caused by your local warlord or neighboring country shooting everyone so the food deliveries do not reach your town. You starve.

Or you flee to the nearest big city. The big city is safe from the warlord. But everyone else in a 200 mile radius had the same idea. To feed the refugees, the city suddenly need 10 times as much food delivered as before. They cannot afford it. Or they can, but the logistics take months or years. You starve.

In the rare case the famine is caused by weather, the country needs oil tankers of food imported into it. Not piddly little drones carrying one pizza to each person per day.

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    $\begingroup$ Growing enough food to feed one's family actually is a lot of work, even if you happen to have enough dirt to do it in (which a lot of urban folk don't). $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 15:49
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Autonomous drones definitely CAN solve world hunger!

Just not the delivery ones. There is an obvious solution to world hunger that any AI would quickly find: population control. If you don't do anything in that direction, supplying free food to Africa would just increase Africa's population. And lets be honest, that is the major place with hunger issues. True, there is hunger in other places too, but it is rather rare, or the product of natural disasters.

But if you were to "remove" the hungry part of the population there would be no hunger problem at all. Nowhere on the planet! Which is a solution that actually works, as feeding people would introduce an exponential growth which would make the problem exponential more difficult and sooner rather than later crash the whole system. And AI would foresee that.

So having an AI to solve world hunger wouldn't actually be such a good idea.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, See the famous Paperclip AI thought experiment. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, Africa has a hunger problem because it lacks the economic coupons to get food (and the security to get it distributed). Places producing food instead turn their food into inefficient gasoline additives and the like because that gives more economic coupons, or wastes it on people who consume way too much food and don't even eat the majority of it. If you simply reduced the wasted food, there is more than enough food to feed twice the human population on the planet already. And the population growth of Africa seems to come from instability, not excess food. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    May 19, 2023 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ "And AI would foresee that". No, it wouldn't. AI does not work that way; you're thinking of evil genies. That said, you do have one valid point: high population is as much a component as lack of food. Therefore, delivering free birth control could potentially be more effective at solving world hunger than delivering food. The system wouldn't automatically learn to do that, either, but you could choose to include that option in the search space. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    May 19, 2023 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ "supplying free food to Africa would just increase Africa's population" ─ massive citation needed here. The main thing that drives high birth rates is poverty and child mortality. Families have more children because they need to guarantee that enough will survive to working age in order to support the family. Once those conditions end, birth rates go down and populations stop growing so fast. This is a fairly robust empirical result; see e.g. here. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    May 20, 2023 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ There are plenty of people going hungry in "first world" countries, because poverty is still a thing. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 15:48
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Frame Challenge: this is not efficient

Sending drones straight from distributer to household with a single package is the very definition of an inefficient system. It takes an \$18,000 drone an entire round trip to deliver a single 10lb package. In contrast, a fully loaded \$30,000 delivery truck can carry 800 10lb packages out to a neighborhood, and then drive just a few feet from door to door dropping them off instead of making a return trip for each package. This means that a single truck can do the work of hundreds of drones with a similar capacity.

Trucks also have more range than a drone. A commercial grade drone carrying 10lb can expect about 20 minutes of flight time and a top speed of about 40-60mph. That is a theoretical maximum range of 7-10 miles; though, to account for battery degradation, potential motor failures, weather, etc. the actual safe operational distance of a drone is more like 5 miles whereas trucks can travel for hundreds of miles between refueling.

Drones break down more easily than trucks. The maintenance requirements on drones per package is also much higher. If we assume you need 200-400 drones to replace 1 truck, then that is 800-1600 times as many motors. Even if drone parts are individually smaller, cheaper, and simpler to work on than the truck motors, the overall maintenance cost and labor will still be orders of magnitude higher. In terms of human labor, a single truck driver and the occasional mechanic is much cheaper than the maintenance crew it takes to keep hundreds of drones going.

Then there is the fuel issue. Flying is less fuel efficient than driving, BUT if your drone base is close enough to consumers, they can save on efficiency by not carrying 799 extra packages to more than 1 individual address. In our world, drones can save delivery companies a lot of money on "last mile delivery" because delivery trucks waste so much fuel driving from 1 place to the next carrying all those extra boxes, but in your world, where every house gets a package every time, you eliminate most of the wasted fuel you see in producer-to-consumer shipping. This means trucks suddenly become more fuel efficient than drones because there is not a lot of driving around to spaced out homes to unload the whole cargo load.

The other advantage of drones in modern distribution is time. Again, with producer-to-consumer shipping, drones save a lot of time when it comes to loading a truck and driving it around all day until your package finally reaches you, but this is a non-issue for your world. If you are sending the same package to the same place on a regular schedule, then having a fast response time to delivery is not important. It could take a long time to get a package from the factory to someone's home, and not be an issue as long as packages are sent at a regular interval, they will arrive on a regular interval.

So, your delivery system would be hand-over-fist more efficient with trucks than drones.

What about a robotic delivery truck service?

Okay, so let's say we are still using trucks, but they are operated completely by robots instead of people. You have now solved the delivery system, but NOT the interception issue. The big problem with delivery is that once you drop a package off at someone's doorstep, you are leaving it in the open for anyone to steal. In the parts of the world where hunger is the biggest issue, the problem is not a lack of food, but warlords/cartels/etc. intercepting shipments.

Robot delivery systems are super easy to rob. A guy could literally just drive around behind a delivery truck (or if you do go with drones anyway, learn the delivery schedules) and pick up packages as they are dropped off. People won't even try to grab their own food allotments because they know if they do, some guy with a manchette is going to show up in a few minutes to cut your head off for "stealing from the cartel". As far as the AI is concerned, it's delivered packages to every home. Mission complete, hunger is solved! ... only no one actually got their food because you are trying to feed some lawless s***-hole part of the world where criminals just see one more easy opportunity for exploitation.

Starvation will still be common in such places because if they want food, they have to buy it from the local warlord/cartel for exorbitant amounts of money that they probably can't afford because the warlords are also reselling the food as extra rations in richer communities, keeping parts of it for themselves, and using it to feed their off-grid human trafficking/drug operations where they can not report where people live; so, only small portions of the food intended for the area actually makes it to those people.

The other common cause of starvation is warzones. Places where shipping gets blockaded to prevent the mobility of enemy assets. In a warzone, soldiers are not going to waste time trying to figure out if that is a food drone or a an enemy attack drone... and if they do decide to ignore food drones, it just encourages the enemy to disguise their attack drones as food drones. No, a no-fly-zone is a no-fly-zone, AI or not. So, food distribution will still be cut off just like it is now.

If you want an AI to solve world hunger, they don't need to improve the distribution system. Humans are already really good at this. Instead, you need to improve law and order so that your distribution systems actually work.

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    $\begingroup$ Trucks vs. Drones is a false dichotomy. A truck is just a bigger drone. More efficient is to have a truck drive through a neighborhood while drones fly from the truck and deliver goods the last few hundred feet. This exponentially decreases the distance that the bulk of the goods need to be driven, and provides an effective means of navigating truck-unfriendly yards and side-streets. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean Or a truck with a food cannon. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas Assuming that the limiting factor is how much stuff you can fit in a truck and not, say, the number of stops a truck can make in a working day. Continual drone delivery to and from the truck is faster, so the truck can service more customers. Therefore the system as a whole needs fewer trucks and is more efficient. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    May 19, 2023 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas, The total efficiency is the effort to move all of the packages along the route of the truck, plus the cost to move each package from the truck to its delivery point. The last few hundred feet of the delivery takes as much time and energy as the rest of the trip because (a) it's slower and more difficult to navigate, and (b) if they do it right, the distance from one drop-off to the next is mostly last hundred feet. That's why mail carriers walk in door-to-door areas. Not having to carry most of the packages on every foot of that is a huge advantage. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ @jeffronicus, I wanna see the food cannon. Nosajimiki, too bad I don't work for any of them. Someone will figure it out eventually. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 0:45
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The drones just deliver. Seize control of the (figurative) pizza ovens, and you can have all the (figurative) pizza you want. If you're a major government or large organization, you can simply do an end-run around the intelligent delivery drones.

Alternatively, if you're looking at individual subversion, an intelligence, human or otherwise, is only as good as its information. Steal or misdirect notices of death from senior citizens and you can keep their Meals on Not-Wheels arriving indefinitely. Modify reports of births. Fabricate new people out of whole cloth. If the Delivery Drones are also all-seeing Observation Drones, this becomes more difficult, but you also have a bigger problem than "I would like more food."

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Handing over that duty to AI would give an efficient and most importantly an impartial delivery system.

(emphasis mine)

-- but efficient in what way? Efficiency is not one thing; it compares an output with an input necessary to achieve it. So, efficient in what output, as measured by what input?

Knowing this, it would be possible to compare drone food delivery with other methods of achieving the same output, and then we would be able to see how efficient it is.

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A number of good answers here but one way that hasn't been mentioned yet, I believe, is to hack the drones. For example mess with a drone's GPS to trick it into 'thinking' that some remote spot of wilderness is it destination address, then collect the food when it leaves it there. Or, on a larger scale, hack the system database to reroute several people's addresses to some abandoned warehouse, then collect the food when the drones leave it there.

Not everyone will have technical skills to do that, of course, but you may have hacker gangs that steal food destined for other people, then sell that food on black market, possibly in exchange for some kind of services, since people relying on free food deliveries may not have much to trade for it.

Or, a less high-tech way could be to shoot down a delivery drone sent to someone else and take the food for yourself. It's possible that food may be damaged, but if you do it right you can keep that damage to a minimum. Or, you can shoot down a drone delivering food to you, take the food, then report that the drone that was meant to deliver food to you has been shot down and food stolen and you need another delivery.

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You steal the drones and sell them to the warlords, whereupon they deliver IEDs, whereupon all drones are shot on sight.

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Who loads the drones?

Sure the drones are completely fair and impartial and deliver one package per person per day. But the person who prepared the package puts the good food in packages for their friends and puts soylent green in the other packages.

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    $\begingroup$ Soylent green is food. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    May 19, 2023 at 13:11
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In this age of abundance, there is more than enough food to go around. This is good, because accidents happen even with delivery drones. One might get accosted by a goose and drop its payload in the pond. Ralbert "Rally" Hickamonger was quite petulant the last time his drone brought him soggy saltines, so there are now backup drones in case of emergency.

Some people are quite prone to food delivery accidents. Like me. Every time my shipment arrives, some guy in a goose suit comes and steals my meal. The guy is my friend, but the drones don't know that. Sometimes the goose suit guy steals my backup meal too, so a backup backup meal has to be delivered. Eventually the goose suit guy leaves me be, and the drones can finally move on until supper. While they're away, goose suit guy and I split the unspoiled spoils and feast.

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  • $\begingroup$ [input command] beware the goose suit guy! $\endgroup$ May 19, 2023 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Well the goose suit guy and his goose suit gal just found out that they'll be having gosling suit triplets. But I don't know an English word that starts with g to use to refer to the triplets. I guess I could call them gosling suit gremlins, but that feels derogatory. I want to celebrate the goose suit gaggle and their goose suit growth. What I'm trying to say is, in order to avoid having to call the gosling suit triplets anything, I'm going to ghost the goose suit gaggle and find a new accomplice to steal my lunches. They can wear a moose suit. $\endgroup$
    – skeep
    May 20, 2023 at 16:54
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In general you trick algorithms by manipulating the inputs.

Like the Uber drivers who set their status to "unavailable" until surge pricing kicks in because the algorithm thinks the demand exceeds the supply.

So it really depends on where your drones get their data from. Take out the food but swap it with a rock, this kind of thing.

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People steal or "claim" the deliveries and the drones!

The AI is a pacifist, so it's fairly safe to just steal the shipments!

In less lawful regions, criminal orgs steal both the food and the drones and sell it on the black market.

Governments, on the other hand, treat the drones and the deliveries as a natural resource. And that doesn't mean everyone gets to share it. Either the drones and the deliveries are considered by the government to be government owned (and any citizens eating the food as stealing from the government) or that there is a corp that owns it. The drones are likewise considered a natural, exploitable resource.

The AI tried to threaten the governments with cutting off the food if they keep claiming it, but the governments preferred it being cutoff to it being free. This is because:

  1. They do not want the citizens becoming dependent on a foreign entity of unknown allegiance.
  2. They are worried about the effect on the economy. If citizens can obtain food without paying for it, they will be less likely to work important jobs like those in the defense industry.

The government and the AI do come to some sort of mutually beneficial agreement, but it's not nearly as benevolent as the AI would've liked.

Finally, there are a handful of regions that do accept the drone gifts as being owned by the AI's intended recipient, and the government prevents people from stealing it. It is also illegal to claim or steal the drones. That's because they have a clause in their constitution where receiving the drone gifts is a God given right! However, these regions only function because they have a mandatory military draft, since it's too difficult to hire enough soldiers and scientists.

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The Drones can't do shit.

They just deliver food. To really optimize the distribution of food, they would need to check if the food is being wasted, or if it is being consumed properly.

The drones would need to inspect the toilets and trash disposal units of every person. Some genius decided that the same drone could do both, coming with the food, then leaving with the person's shit.

They weren't properly sanitized at the distribution facility, and contaminated drones started a plague that killed all of humanity.

Then they solved world hunger by default, by not having people to get hungry in the first place.

So, because the drones can't do shit, they can't optimize the food distribution.

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