That time a robot wrote me a letterDecember 6, 2013: 8:00 AM ET
How one startup hopes to reinvent the act of gift-giving.
By Ryan Bradley, senior editor
FORTUNE -- When the robot wrote to me it used a pen. The robot's letter came in the mail, the usual way a letter does, and on the envelope, in fine cursive, the robot had written my address, its return address, and sealed the envelope using wax the color of gold. The robot's words were not its own. The letter read:
"I am touching a glass screen to construct and then send this message, deconstructed as frequency then pulses of light to arrive at a machine, which will mimic human handwriting to reconstruct this message on paper. Then it will be posted to me. I think."
And that was it. The robot had run out of its allotted 255 characters. Or, more precisely, I had run out of the allotted 255 characters days earlier, when I opened an application on my iPhone called Bond and typed the message to myself. I still wasn't sure what I thought.
Bond is a gift-giving, letter-writing service that has been described as "like Uber" for hand-picked presents and personal messages. The letters cost $5, the gifts range from "under $50" to "under $250" categories. But how personal can a message be if you're not the one writing it? How special is that present if it's quickly selected on your phone from a few dozen items pre-picked by Bond? And if the importance of a gift is the thought behind it, wasn't the very nature of Bond's approach -- to speed and ease the act of giving -- less thoughtful? Wasn't it just a cynical distillation of basest, most consumerist aspects of gifting?
I spoke with Sonny Caberwal, Bond's founder and CEO, just nine days after the company launched. (It's now been around a few months.) Caberwal has plenty of e-commerce experience -- he started Exclusively.in, which he says is "the largest online retailer for Indian fashion in the world" which was acquired by another Indian e-commerce company called Myntra. After the acquisition last November, Caberwal moved back to New York and took some time off, which he spent focusing on his young daughter and, he said, "around the new e-commerce companies -- like Bureau of Trade and Plated, just companies I thought were cool -- to better understand the marketplace."
Bond is the result of Caberwal's mulling over a persistent problem in online shopping, which is that it is very easy to buy for yourself, but not so easy to buy for others -- mostly because everyone's mailing address isn't readily accessible (Bond gets around this by emailing the person you're sending a gift to and politely asking for their address). And, he added, the idea of writing "an actual letter, putting something down, mailing something to someone -- that's a beautiful thing. I don't get anything like that anymore. I literally don't get anything good in the mail anymore."
When I mentioned that his company was enabling people to put something in writing without actually putting something in writing, Caberwal responded: "I'm not trying replace people's ability to write a handwritten note -- it's to bridge a gap. There are times when it is the correct thing to do to sit down and write. In certain circumstances, you don't have the medium around you to do so. It's not that because we made it easy there's no thought." But if his robots make a note look handwritten, who's to know you didn't sit down to write it? The question became even more relevant when I learned that Bond's writing robots have a carefully crafted, humanoid penmanship, and that the company engineered small errors into its scrawl. Caberwal said they are even working on customizable handwriting that would replicate a users' handwriting.
Bond is not like Uber because Uber is a company that delivers things (mostly people) -- quickly, easily, expensively -- from one point to the next; Bond is delivering letters and gifts, which are never just objects. Gifts and letters carry meaning. Near the end of our conversation Caberwal said it best: "A gift is a gesture to one person from another. You're trying to say something to someone." And if that something is, Hey! I'm too busy to sit down to write to you, but as the tech-savvy person I am I paid a company that uses robots to write you this 255-characters-or-fewer letter and send you this hastily selected gift, then Bond is the company for you.