A Gita robot superimposed over a drawing of women's feet in high heels
Piaggio Fast Forward / NinaMalyna / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Cute Robot That Follows You Around the City

Piaggio, the Italian company that makes Vespa scooters, is building cargo droids for city pedestrians.

“This is Gita.” Jeffrey Schnapp pronounces the “T” in the crisp, Italian way—near the teeth rather than the soft palate—which makes me feel like I should have worn more expensive shoes to the meeting. Gita is a bulbous lozenge of a robot, about two feet tall, with rubber tires at its edges so it can spin around within its own footprint.

Gita means a jaunt or an outing. The little robot goes on quick trips with its human, carrying things too heavy to bear by hand and too inconvenient to do so by backpack or bicycle. Once powered up, Gita automatically follows its owner, traipsing the groceries or gardening home while the human operator strolls ahead, free to gesticulate on a phone call or inhale from a cigarette. With a cargo capacity of 44 pounds and an eight-hour battery life, Schnapp and his team hope that Gita might redirect some automobile trips into pedestrian ones.

This Gita is blue, with a compartment on top for storage, but the robot comes in other colors, too—red, yellow, green, gray. Color-matched LED lights encircle their fenders.

The concept sounds familiar enough, at first: yet another attempt to automate daily life with sensor-driven robotics. But there’s something different about Gita. As the CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, the company that makes Gita, Schnapp has been charged with reinventing mobility for Piaggio, an Italian manufacturer of motor vehicles including small commercial equipment, Aprilia racing motorcycles, and Vespa motor scooters. That’s right, the company behind the scooter that plucks the heartstrings of romantic, urban fantasy is now making spheroid cargo droids.

Schnapp is also a professor at Harvard. And while he might not be the only Harvard faculty member with a robotics start-up, he’s certainly the only professor of Romance languages and literatures to helm one—let alone the experimental division of a 130-year-old Italian motor-vehicle conglomerate. Schnapp and I share a similar ontogeny—we both hold doctorates in comparative literature but now also work in design and technology—and our previous professional encounters had led me to believe that we were co-conspirators. I wasn’t wrong, exactly, but I feel pretty junior varsity after he pulls me through his looking glass. We meet up for an event at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and then depart in Schnapp’s orange Honda Element for his company’s Boston offices. On the way we pick up his corgi, Skye, and Schnapp explains how he got involved with Piaggio. The story is completely bananas.

Schnapp runs MetaLAB at Harvard, a center that bills itself as an “idea foundry” and production studio connecting the arts and humanities via projects, experiments, and public events. While attending a program at Harvard Business School in 2011, an Italian executive named Davide Zanolini happened to drop by one of these MetaLAB events. At the time, he worked for Perfetti Van Melle, an Italian confectionary company whose best-known global export is Mentos. Zanolini tells me that he was “extremely impressed” by Schnapp and his students.

Schnapp was trained as a medievalist; in addition to books on European futurism, fascism, modernist design, he has also written about Dante, Virgil, and Machiavelli. Born in New York in 1954, Schnapp grew up in Mexico City in the 1960s, where his father ran the advertising division of Kodak Mexicana. The advertising job came with perks, Schnapp says, including tickets to Formula One and other motorsports. He became enamored, especially with motorbikes.

In the 1990s, while working on a book about the father of futurism, Filippo Marinetti, Schnapp longed for a more personal way to introduce the topic to his readers. Futurism, an avant-garde movement that started in 1909 with Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, emphasized danger, speed, and machinery. Schnapp decided to take the prompt literally. He dusted off his Aprilia superbike and spent the next 10 years on the amateur racing circuit, eventually winning the American Federation of Motorcyclists Formula Singles championship in 2004.

Schnapp racing bike number 209, an Aprilia RS250, at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California, in 2001 (Jeffrey Schnapp)

I start to become disoriented. What medievalist becomes a motorbike racer to finish a scholarly biography of an avant-garde poet? For a moment, I wonder if I’ve fallen into a Wes Anderson film.

Zanolini says Schnapp's “great passion for racing motorbikes” put the professor at the top of his mind when he made the jump from candy at Perfetti Van Melle to motor vehicles at Piaggio Group. But, to be sure, it wasn’t just Schnapp’s affinity for a Piaggio-made superbike that got him the gig. He’d spent years going back and forth between the United States and Italy for scholarly and artistic projects. His Italian linguistic and cultural fluency made Schnapp a coyote stealing across the borders between elite American research institutions and the Italian design and business communities.

When I ask Michele Colaninno, PFF’s chairman and the son of Roberto Colaninno, Piaggio’s current patriarch, about having chosen such an unconventional leader for PFF, he responds with a confusion that betrays his Italian-ness, as if I’ve ordered a cappuccino in the mid-afternoon. “Describing Jeffrey as unconventional is probably reductive,” he responds. “He is a professor of medieval history, but he has also pioneered a number of cross-disciplinary fields of research, such as the emerging field of digital humanities. We clicked straightaway.”

Piaggio’s business is light mobility. Its small, commercial vehicles aren’t well-known in North America, but scooters and motorcycles offer obvious benefits in dense urban environments. They are small and can fit anywhere. They’re less costly to buy than cars and much cheaper to operate.

But urban mobility is changing, even for motor scooters. With autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and other technological redevelopment emerging, the light-mobility business will surely look different in this century than it did in the last. Technology companies like Google, Uber, and Tesla aspire to revolutionize transport through disruptive innovation, but Piaggio wants to service the urban experience at people scale.

Pope Benedict passing a pair of Piaggio Ape light commercial vehicles in 2008 (Reuters)

Pretty quickly, PFF settled on the pedestrian experience as a promising focus. I bring up the Segway, Dean Kamen’s infamous, balancing conveyance of the early 2000s. Didn’t it too have this dream—to change how cities worked—only to become a curiosity for tourists, and then a joke about mall cops? Schnapp has opinions on the matter. It was too much like a remedial hardware device, he says. It was physically threatening to pedestrians. Segway disrupted the sidewalk as a social space, rather than improving it. For once, I know that “disrupt” is meant to berate rather than to celebrate.

Preserving walking as a first principle of urban development became an important value proposition for PFF. “Hands-free walking is significant because when unencumbered, people have the cognitive freedom to interact with the environment,” Schnapp explains. And so, they set out to find problems that light-mobility might solve for city dwellers in that situation. That’s what led to cargo—it’s the first obstacle to gratifying pedestrian experience. You can’t walk effectively when hindered by baggage.

“We wanted it to be at least big enough to carry a case of wine,” Schnapp says of his design team’s earliest cargo parameters. It may seem like an opulent, if characteristically Italian, problem to solve, but it underscores PFF’s stated mission, “autonomy for humans.” Humans deserving the name shouldn’t outsource labor to machines just so they can devote an extra hour to their jobs from the seats of autonomous car shares. No, real humans ought to host good dinner parties for their friends. I think of a colleague of mine, a short-statured, feisty Italian film scholar in her early 60s with a penchant for prosecco, and I smile imagining her goading a Gita to get the load home. Avanti, Gita, forza!

There’s evidence that the Italians have it right. Recently, Bay Area start-ups started experimenting with delivery robots to keep up with the rising demand for food- and product-delivery start-ups like Yelp and Eat24. In theory, these robots could replace cars, but they take up space on the sidewalks, too, displacing pedestrians and cyclists. They also look distressingly inhuman; little boxes on wheels that resemble bomb-detection units more than lunch couriers. Late last year, San Francisco banned the delivery robots expressly because they were clogging the sidewalks.

Schnapp doesn’t really want me to call Gita a “robot.” During our visit, he continuously downplays the technology. The two-wheeled device is an engineering marvel, of course, full of sensors and servos, including camera systems to see its path and gyroscopes to keep it upright. But the design team recently made the decision to off-load LIDAR (the range-finding sensor used in self-driving cars) in favor of plainer computer-vision solutions. Cost is one factor, but function is another. Gita’s goals don’t really require LIDAR-level accuracy.

Schnapp also brushes aside the machine’s autonomous aspirations. A pedestrian robot is more like a very simple Star Wars R2 unit than like an intelligent machine. For now, all Gita needs to do is follow its owner. The relationship between the walker and the cargo carrier is more like having a pet than an artificial intelligence.

True to the lineage of both droid and dog, using a Gita feels humane and charming. I open the lid and imagine I’m loading up a few of bottles of Aperol, stand in front of the device, and touch the screen. The Gita does a little shimmy to indicate that it’s paired with me, and I start walking around the office.

The Gita rumbles along behind me. It sounds hollow against the studio’s concrete floor, resonating like a bocce ball rolling across the floor of an upstairs apartment. The sound makes it easy to know that Gita’s still there, and it also makes it feel like a fellow traveler, rather than a robot to which I’m outsourcing the burden of my cargo. I feel self-conscious but at ease, like a Miyazaki character who has befriended a large, semi-sentient mochi.

As I meander, Skye the corgi dashes toward the back of the studio, where a Kuka manufacturing robot is cutting a new prototype out of foam. Naz Ekmekjian, a PFF designer operating the Kuka, scoops the dog up before it enters the dangerous radius of the robot’s violent action. This is an office rather than a city street, but it still embodies the vivacious, urban texture in which PFF hopes Gita will become harmonious. A city is made of people, structures, dogs, wine shops, scooters, cars, and more. All of them should have a place. And a style, too. Even as Tesla is killing the glamour of the supercar, Piaggio strives to make a wine mule as alla moda as a motor scooter.

A Piaggio Fast Forward press image showing Gita in hypothetical use at a hotel (Piaggio Fast Forward)

Still, Gita seems like a tough sell. San Francisco’s sidewalk-robot ban notwithstanding, on-demand-delivery and car-sharing services seem likely to further undermine pedestrian jaunts, with or without a Gita. And beyond the hypothetical trip to the neighborhood store—hardly a universal option, by the way—PFF doesn’t have many real use cases yet.

Among its most public applications so far, Gita has worked as a fancy champagne bucket and olfactory vaporizer at a haute-cuisine eatery called Café ArtScience, near MIT. By happenstance, I had a reservation at the place the night I visited PFF’s offices. The cocktails were all named after wildlife; a mezcal-based one called Snow Leopard was served in a pedestal-bottomed, floral-printed china teacup. This is not the everyperson’s social context.

And yet, Schnapp tells me that PFF doesn’t see Gita as a luxury product. When I press him for more commonplace examples, he suggests that Gita could make jogging to work more feasible, that it could help suburban parents navigate outings with kids to the park or the sporting field, and that it might be used in closed-loop spaces like hotels, resorts, and college campuses. The latter example also emphasizes the more obvious utility of Kilo, Gita’s three-wheeled sibling. Kilo could be used for mail or package delivery, for example, or for maintenance, landscape, or construction work. But Kilo also warns against the Segway’s fate. Gita still risks becoming just a cute butler for five-star hotel guests.

Nobody I talk to at Piaggio Fast Forward seems particularly worried about their chances of success. To outsiders, the idea of a swarm of cargo spheres taking on Google or Uber or even the robot-delivery start-ups might seem like folly. But perhaps it represents a different take on innovation than the one that the Silicon Valley–style technology industry has all but naturalized. Italy offers a different model for the future than America.

After Marinetti’s futurism became Mussolini’s fascism, the Italian economy all but collapsed. But by 1950, Italy had emerged as a global industrial power. Funds from the Marshall Plan helped, but a period of strong entrepreneurship created a multitude of small businesses across all industrial sectors. Many became medium-sized ones, and a few became large, even global interests.

A man on a Vespa stops on the street to chat with a man on a bicycle in 1948. (Dmitri Kessel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images)

I ask my friend Giordano Bruno Contestabile, an Italian-born entrepreneur who invests in the American tech sector, to help me understand how Italian businesses think about innovation differently than American firms.

“The family is the specific characteristic and overarching concern of Italian business,” Contestabile tells me. “The majority of those companies, even when scaling up, didn’t abandon a view of ownership and management that’s tightly centered on the family that started it all.” Piaggio isn’t run by its founding namesake anymore, but is still very much this kind of company—closely controlled by the Colaninno family, who rescued it from bank ownership through a series of leveraged buyouts starting around 20 years ago.

Despite his lineage, Contestabile expresses clear disdain for this Italian corporate attitude. “Slowly but surely, the country will become what it’s destined to be,” he concludes: “a theme park for tourists, with an overinflated sense of self, based on events that unfolded 2,000 and 400 years ago.”

For him, the leapfrog innovation of Silicon Valley is far preferable. Self-driving cars, reusable rockets, disintermediating apps, and other large-scale innovations are incompatible with obsessive reverence for the ancestral past.

And yet, PFF’s progress so far seems to have relied on a hybrid of the Silicon Valley and Italian attitudes. Will you and your friends have Gitas following you around in five years, hauling your wine, groceries, and kids’ gear? The answer relies partly on how effectively the company can evangelize its vision of the future to an utterly unfamiliar public. That’s the Silicon Valley part. But the Italian component, equally important, involves making that vision compatible with a way of life inherited and preserved over generations.

Schnapp, the motorbiking, medievalist designer, might represent a paradigmatic example of their productive compromise. Speaking of the named professorship he now holds at Harvard, he tells me, “I don’t think I’d have gotten this job if I hadn’t come from Stanford [University].” His role at Harvard, let alone at PFF, involves fusing the old world and the new. Art and technology. Literature and design. Cambridge and Palo Alto. Italy and America.

Now that the world has started to turn against the technology industry, which at its worst seems to be dismantling democracy, killing jobs, and eroding privacy, some have started celebrating the liberal arts as salve: ethics, communication, empathy, critical thinking, problem-solving, and so on. Yet humanists like Schnapp aren’t just abstract generalists. They are specialists, too—just in specialties that many people consider irrelevant. But what if all that supposedly irrelevant knowledge contains keys to contemporary innovation—perhaps ones vital to putting a Gita in your entryway?

Schnapp’s 2017 homage to Piaggio and Italo Calvino, literature and industry (Ian Bogost)

Two years after founding PFF, Piaggio marked its 130-year anniversary. To celebrate the milestone, Schnapp did what no CEO but every Harvard comparatist would do: He wrote a book about it. The result is FuturPiaggio, a $200 limited-edition volume published by Rizzoli. Intricately illustrated and designed, the book is bound by two enormous metal bolts—a nod to a common means of fastening technical manuals. Roberto Colaninno wrote the foreword.

Schnapp subtitled the book “Six Italian Lessons on Mobility and Modern Life.” It’s a reference to the writer Italo Calvino’s final work, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a series of lectures that were to be given at Harvard in 1985. Calvino died before completing and delivering the lectures, but they were published posthumously in 1988.

Schnapp adopts Calvino’s five surviving topics wholesale: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. The industrious literarian had hoped to bring Italy to Harvard, and now the literary industrialist exports Harvard back to Italy again.

All this might seem a little too precious to today’s citizen, struggling to get by in a world technology has plundered. As great an indulgence, perhaps, as imagining that tomorrow’s city-dweller would spend a substantial sum (“scooter pricing,” Schnapp hedges) on a wine-hauling pod-robot. I can’t deny it. But it shows that Schnapp, and by extension Piaggio, are thinking about the past along with the future. What a city is and will be is related to what it was already.

No surprise, Calvino had some good advice about the future. “And then there are computers,” he wrote in the first memo, on lightness. “We still have machines made of steel, but they now obey bits that are weightless.” One can imagine this slogan on the walls of Uber or Google or Facebook, a celebration of computation’s escape from the orbit of history. But Calvino meant it as a warning for the new millennium. The lesson says that weightlessness—that lightness of bits—demands care and differentiation, not chaos or unconcern. And yet, technology today mostly offers only the latter and mocks the former.

It might be obscene to answer Calvino with a start-up, but PFF is giving it a go. That’s more than Uber or Google can say. “The Vespa is a social vehicle,” Schnapp writes in his new memo on lightness. “Their movements can be purposeful; just as often they are the motorized equivalent of the idle peregrinations of the flâneur ... their pace isn’t so fast as to preclude conversation.”

Piaggio Fast Forward might be inventing the future, or it might be spinning its wheels. I feel charmed but also dubious as I part ways with Gita and Skye and Naz and the rest. But at least Schnapp offers a vision that I want to trust. More, certainly, than those of his counterparts in San Francisco who are already winning the race to design the future of cities by tearing them down and rebuilding them. A century after Italian Futurism first fantasized that progress would focus best through violence and industry, machines are everywhere, and out of control. Perhaps a literary scholar with a penchant for motorbikes is the perfect handler to tame them.