A Letter’s Odyssey in the Land of Robots and Men

 

It all began at the Consulate General of Italy in New York on 22 September 2016. This correspondent was applying for his professional visa. He had to step out and get a self-addressed priority envelope from a nearby post office, with $6.45-worth in stamps. In seventeen years in the United States, the Post Office has only failed to deliver an expected item.

This time, however, it became a nightmare. And it had my passport inside, two weeks before my flight.

The envelope’s destination was Fort Lee, New Jersey, where this correspondent stayed. It’s a trip that normally may take an hour from Manhattan. With bad traffic, make it two or three hours (even though the George Washington Bridge that connects both states is at the center of a political controversy, as officials of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie’s administration shut lanes at rush hour on 9 September 2013, as retribution against Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor, Mark Sokolich; but more on that another day).

Be that as it may, the Italian Consulate issued the visa on 29 September, and promptly dispatched the letter. It left the Manhattan facility that afternoon. It was the start of its odyssey that would take the envelope all the way down to Raleigh, North Carolina, in the Deep South. But the characters of this story were not Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or Atticus Finch. This was a battle of Robots versus Men.

Shipment Activity Location Date & Time
Acceptance New York, NY 10021 September 22, 2016 10:32 am
Departed Post Office New York, NY 10021 September 22, 2016 7:22 pm
Arrived at USPS Facility Jersey City, NJ 07097 September 29, 2016 7:57 pm
Arrived at USPS Facility Kearny, NJ 07032 September 29, 2016 10:56 pm
Arrived at Post Office South Orange, NJ 07079 September 30, 2016 6:22 am
Arrived at USPS Facility Teterboro, NJ 07699 October 1, 2016 4:12 am
Departed USPS Facility Teterboro, NJ 07699 October 1, 2016 7:34 am
Departed USPS Facility Kearny, NJ 07032 October 1, 2016 9:16 pm
Arrived at USPS Facility Raleigh, NC 27676 October 2, 2016 5:36 pm
Departed USPS Facility Raleigh, NC 27676 October 3, 2016 3:54 am
Departed USPS Facility Raleigh, NC 27676 October 4, 2016 12:24 am
Arrived at USPS Facility Kearny, NJ 07032 October 4, 2016 9:09 pm

This is what happened. When the stamp for a Priority Mail envelope is issued, the destination zip code goes embedded into a barcode. The zip code of your correspondent’s address was 07024. But the wrong zip code went into the barcode: 07079. A Post Office employee made an error, as every human is apt to. The label with the address was correctly written. Robots, however, do not read labels. They only read the zip code embedded in the barcode, invisible to human eyes.

But here is where it gets interesting. Robots are flawed, too. This correspondent began to get a little concerned, then anxious, slowly inching towards desperation and fury, when he followed the tracking on the Internet and saw the envelope with the precious passport and even more precious visa inside making a grand tour of the U.S. with a generous loop south of the Bible Belt.

When he decided it was no longer funny, he began to work the phones in a frenzy. Postal officials responded to a man. The envelope was rescued at least four times along the road: at South Orange and Kearny, in New Jersey; and at Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as soon as it got back into the conveyor belt, the envelope was at the mercy of merciless robots. As Anita, the U.S. Post Office heroine in this story explained, there were at least three different types of machines involved in the process and that took decisions. These three systems speak different languages. So imagine an Internet of Things in which each device speaks a different language. Whereas two humans speaking two languages as remote from each other as Chinese maybe from Portuguese may manage to at least communicate basic or urgent concepts, two or three robots that speak different languages and are not polyglot are prone to commit disasters.

Like, for example, shipping a letter that only needs to travel across a bridge all the way down to North Carolina. Even worse, the letter went on a mysterious errand in the pre-dawn hours of October 3 only to return to Raleigh—in a trip that is not recorded in the tracking history—more than 24 hours later. But at that point, a Post Office official called Tommy, at Raleigh, had rescued the envelope from the clutches of the robots, and dispatched the letter manually to New Jersey.

And as soon as the plane carrying the envelope touched land in New Jersey, Anita, a hard-working Filipino employee of the Post Office Processing Center at Kearny, was on the lookout for it. This is no easy task. It involves sifting through crates that may carry up to 5,000 letters. But she found it! And promptly called your correspondent, who promptly called his Uber ride and went into the night of New Jersey across highways and got his envelope from the hands of Anita, who is delightful. She smiles, too, even though she does the night shift until 3:30 AM every day. That’s not something a robot would –I mean, smile.

With his envelope rescued from the robots, this correspondent hopped back into a different Uber ride. And he thanked God that it was a human being, a friendly young man from the Dominican Republic. For I would rather walk back rather than ever get into self-driven car, or a car run by a robot. I wouldn’t trust that the self-driving car would understand that I changed my mind and I want to stop for a drink. It might drive me anywhere it fancied. And it would surely not get what that finger gesture meant from the truck driver ahead of it.

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