The Pandemic Is Bringing Us Closer To Our Robot Takeout Future

from ars technica

On the morning of March 30, I set out from my home in Washington, DC, to the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In only a few hours, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam would issue coordinated stay-at-home orders. But I was going to GMU’s campus to check out a new technology seemingly tailor-made for the moment—technology that could help people get food without the risks of face-to-face interactions.

Campus was eerily quiet; most students and staff had long been sent home. But as I approached a Starbucks at the northern edge of GMU, I heard a faint buzzing and saw a six-wheeled, microwave-sized robot zip along the sidewalk, turn, and park in front of the coffee shop. The robot looked like—and essentially was—a large white cooler on wheels. It was a delivery robot from Starship, a startup that has been operating on campus since early last year.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, small sidewalk robots like this seemed to be slowly gaining traction here and at large. Generally, these bots are light and slow-moving enough that they’re unlikely to hurt anyone. That has allowed companies to start using them in real-world applications, with minimal supervision, at a time when larger autonomous vehicles designed for road use still seem far from mainstream commercial use.

These days, of course, coronavirus lockdowns have created a surge in demand for food deliveries. In recent weeks, I’ve talked to executives from two different sidewalk robot companies, Starship and Kiwibot. Both say they’re scrambling to build new robots and roll out service to new areas in the face of unprecedented interest.

Robot deliveries remain rare enough that it’s easy to dismiss them as curiosities. But that’s a mistake. The technology works now. Starship already has hundreds of robots in service delivering food to real customers. Spurred by demand from locked-down customers, that number could soon soar to the thousands and eventually into the millions. With lower costs and no need to tip, robots could make takeout more popular than ever as it gradually displaces human-driven food deliveries.

Sidewalk robots won’t eliminate human-driven food delivery entirely. We’ll need bigger, faster robots that travel in the street to reach customers in many suburban and rural areas. But Starship’s rapid growth is a sign of what’s to come. In a decade or two, having a human being bring you food could seem as anachronistic as paying for long-distance phone calls.

And right now, certainly, there’s clear appeal to less human-involved food delivery.

More here.

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10 Responses to The Pandemic Is Bringing Us Closer To Our Robot Takeout Future

  1. Christopher McGowan April 29, 2020 at 10:14 pm #

    In the midst of the Coronavirus take-out and delivery has been booming, as everyone still wants to enjoy the fast food and drinks they love while still staying inside and practicing social distancing, I can say over the last month I have had a lot of delivery and take out so when I saw “robot takeout future” I was interested as I haven’t noticed to much robotics when it comes to my takeout, but as I read I was surprised to see that at George Mason University there is a start up company called “Starship” that has been operating there over the last year that offers a delivery service that uses small mobile robots that will go to the location and pick up an item and then deliver it, the Robot has been seen parked outside of Starbucks waiting for a worker to bring out the drinks, this was very interesting to me as I didnt think anything like that actually existed yet, but in the midst of coronavirus these robot delivery service have gotten very popular as it takes away any face to face contact that usually would occur in a pick up or drop off. I figured this would be pretty costly for the consumer but it turns out Starship charges the same rates as other delivery services like Doordash and Uber eats, I can see this robotic service really taking off on college campuses like it has at George Mason University , and in urban areas like cities. One day I can see tons of these mouse droid looking things rolling all over New York city delivering cups of coffee and take out. One area I also could see being an issue that companies like Starship may run into is delivery times as these robots dont move very fast and needs to keep a slow speed in order to keep pedestrians safe, but this could effect how fast the robot delivers something. Another automated delivery service is Nuro that has self driving street vehicles that deliver food and groceries, I can see self driving delivery vehicles becoming more common as in the long run these services will save alot of money as companies will not have to hire drivers. I feel one day even all Ubers and Lyfts will be self driving as companies will realize how much money it can save when it doesn’t have too employee drivers.

  2. John McKenna April 30, 2020 at 2:12 pm #

    With the need to lessen human interactions, delivery robots could easily become more and more popular. This technology was already in development and being implemented in multiple areas, and shows much promise. The only resturants operating right now are those that have take-out and especially delivery options. The pizzeria I work at closed down theire dining room, and is taking only orders to go. Working a delivery shift, I have never seen that store so busy with deliveries, the drivers and I could barely keep up with the amount of orders coming out of the kitchen. I can imagine that at many establishments, it is very similar if not worse. And the amount of deliveries that demand a “no contact” delivery is about half, which means leaving food at a doorstep for a customer to receive. With implementation of this technology, bots could be used to fill gaps when delivery drivers are all out, allowing companies to make more deliveries and not have to pay for more workers. These bots also completely remove the issue of a “no contact” delivery, customers can approach the bot and take their safely secured food without risking their quarantine. Tech like this is much more practical than other autonomous vehicles, as these are so small and cheap they are unlikely to cause harm to anyone or anything. And the bots are a working development. With many areas worried about how to continue supporting their citizens, this technology could easily be outsourced to help deal with food delivery. There are already 1000 of these bots being used to deliver food to customers, and the numbers continue to grow. This type of drone delivery is much more practical than things like air-drone delivery, which sparks its own controversy and are complex to operate and maintain. Many innovative technologies and advancements are seeing rapid growth due to this pandemic. With many people looking to alternate options for work, food, and many other services that doesn’t require human interaction, the digital space the direction many are taking.

  3. Colleen O'Keefe May 1, 2020 at 7:32 pm #

    I will admit that upon first watching the video about the robots delivering food, I laughed. The robots were somewhat cute looking, reminding me of something I would see in the movie WALL-E, with a round shape and three little wheels. The video was trying to show how these robots get around and most importantly, how they cross streets without getting hit by cars or running into other people. The little cooler-shaped robot patiently waits at crosswalks, able to detect the signals and move accordingly. After my initial reaction upon seeing this video, I do believe it will eventually become a normal thing to see in areas where this is possible. It seems like it is having a lot of success in the city that is currently using it with people taking advantage of the delivery options for both groceries and takeout. This service was set up quickly in this time of need and it makes sense why: it offers a contact-free delivery service. Right now, everyone at least should be trying to avoid contact with others as much as possible and this delivery robot is a near-perfect solution. However, I do wonder what impacts this could have on the economy and those who might rely on food delivery as a means to make money. The increase of technology in the country has certainly had an impact on the demographic of the world’s working population with a transition away from these unskilled jobs to more high-tech jobs that require much more skills and a higher education that not everyone can afford to have. With the current circumstances, I think that this will have both positive and negative impacts in that it will hopefully keep the virus from spreading by limiting human to human contact, but also take away jobs from people who need them the most right now.

  4. Kevin Orcutt May 1, 2020 at 9:36 pm #

    This article has to do a lot with looking at the disruptiveness to our current society that things like robots are going to have in the future and also now. In this case, this article is bringing to light new advancements in the area of robots bringing people their food away from the restaurant to their home or dorm room on campus. This is something that our parents were seeing in movies when they were kids as to how crazy and advanced the future would be, but it seems like that childhood memory is becoming a reality. Companies that were already previously developing things like that have even more an incentive to accelerate their work and timelines to roll something out as soon as possible. There is not better opportunity to advertise their robots than in a time where being are weary of human reaction until the pandemic cools down. People will flock to supporting this more than ever before right now because the need for this technology is here now and people want to be satisfied now. Although mass scale of this will not be happening for a while still, it is still the perfect time for these companies to advertise and get investors. With all darkness there is a light and this company happens to be in the right position to see that light almost as instantly as the dark came over. The only problem that I see with something like this becoming mainstream is the effects it will have on our economy. With our economy having been transitioning to a service and gig based economy for some time coming now, this is going to put a damper on that. One day jobs for doordash and uber eats may be nonexistent because of these robots which would be terrible for those with the jobs. Although it seems like we cannot stop innovation, I think that there should be some limits at robots being able to displace and entire workforce because eventually there may not be anything else to get a job in if we are developing robots to slowly be able to do everything that a person can do.

  5. CJ Happ May 1, 2020 at 10:12 pm #

    Covid-19 continues to create a dramatic change in the way that the businesses of the United States operate. Most places have been forced to close their main dining areas and resort only to drive thru and delivery. This has lowered the profit of thee restaurants and will cause many small businesses to close due to a lack of profit. Also, these restaurants have had to lay of workers as they can not afford to pay them while they are at one hundred percent capacity. The coronavirus has devastated the United States Economy and will continue to if the quarantine is in effect. To combat these restraints, a couple restaurants across the country are implementing robot delivery services for trial runs. Starship and Kiwibot are the two main companies that have been creating these robots. The delivery robots are small and not on a scale yet to completely rid of human delivery workers, but they are on track to do exactly that in the future. Because this pandemic, these robots are being innovated and used more than previously, and as a product will likely cause a ripple effect where they advance the introduction of robots into business, especially the food industry.

  6. Justin Mathews May 2, 2020 at 1:08 am #

    While I haven’t seen any of these robots myself, I can only imagine what they mean for the future. Just thinking about it, this time is truly perfect for these robots — just from personal experience, the amount me and my family have ordered food to be delivered during this lockdown is probably more than half of last year. This would be a perfect market to target, as I’m sure that these food delivery companies would love to not have to hire drivers. It would also be perfect, considering that these robots wouldn’t be able to catch the virus or become tired because, well, they’re robots. On top of that, you probably wouldn’t have to tip these robots either! Maybe restaurants will make their food more expensive in response, but I’m only just imagining.

    But this topic feeds back into an issue that we’ve discussed all year — automation. If these machines are successful, they’d replace so many people; from pizza delivery drivers, to those who deliver via apps such as UberEats or GrubHub. Just like how cashiers are being replaced in fast food chains and supermarkets, long will be the days of seeing your food deliveryman face-to-face. It’s quite scary really; as time goes on, the more workers we will replace with robots. The question is — can we sustain this? Obviously, new jobs that we cannot even fathom currently will be here in the future. But it surely can’t be healthy to keep eliminating menial jobs, including this one. The worst part is, while this sounds good on paper, it could be even better in effect. Many who are worried about the driver either being late or sneaking some of their food away will have their fears put to rest when these robots are put to work.

  7. Rajat Sinha May 29, 2020 at 7:15 pm #

    During the course of this global pandemic, technology has altered the face of many industries which have traditionally been accustomed to using human employees. For instance, Starship, a small robotics startup company, has been providing food delivery services by the use of small autonomous robots in places like Fairfax City, Virginia and Washington D.C. Other competitors in the robotics industry such as, Nuro and Udelv, have partnered with big chain restaurants and grocery stores like: Domino’s and Walmart to get a jump on the bandwagon as well as innovate in separate areas of the industry such as sidewalk robots and self-driving robots. The services provided by these companies have been bought by many city officials and corporations due to the fact that they are providing some growth to the economy during this uncertain time. A majority of consumers have seen these vehicles as a necessity to get both their groceries and freshly-cooked meals without the risk of going outside and possibly contracting the virus. The convenience and ease-of-access has also, enticed many investors to buy stock in these companies increasing their earnings tenfold while most other industries are struggling to stay afloat in this current situation. Overall, the growth of the robotics industry due to the coronavirus crisis has fueled the rapid progression towards a global future of technology for all industries. One such industry that has adapted to this new climate has been the fast-food industry, which has gone about embracing this by utilizing technology to gradually replace traditional human labor to largely save on operating costs in the long run, while adapting towards the climate of this global pandemic, as well as to be able to increase efficiency and convenience in doing business in the service sector of the greater industry.

    Initially, McDonald’s, one of the largest fast-food restaurants in the world, has innovated itself during the pandemic by using artificially intelligent deep-fryers and voice-activated drive-throughs in order to capitalize on current trends towards a more automated labor process for fast-food in the future and improving the quality and efficiency of the customer experience overall. In an effort to make the fast-food experience more satisfactory for the customer, McDonald’s has been testing voice-activated drive-throughs with various locations in suburban Chicago. Orderscape Inc., a technology startup company that specializes voice-activation software, created this computer programs to assist restaurants in eliminating the human error associated with recording customer orders. Specifically, the software takes the order by recording the customer’s request via speaker and then digitally listing it for human employees to prepare. McDonald’s has also, spent money on robotic deep-fryers which will minimize costs associated with cooking meals over an extended period of time. These robotic deep fryers have proven themselves to be precise in the accuracy of how to cook items on the menu. Customer feedback on this new technology has been excerpted as such: “‘It worked perfectly,’ said Tony Parish, a 65-year old diesel mechanic from Naperville, Illinois, and frequent McDonald’s customer”. In short, customers seem to be satisfied with their orders automated by this new technology implemented by McDonald’s as there’s shown to be little to no room for error in the process. While these reforms have only been implemented in certain locations in the United States, McDonald’s may analyze the combined total performances from these tested innovations towards expansion into their global franchises. This is exemplified in a statement by McDonald’s senior vice president, Martin Smoot who stated that: “…the voice-activated drive-through and robotic deep fryer will be tested at more restaurants soon”. With such technology in place, it seems that McDonald’s will gradually be shifting their interests towards making the customer experience more quick, convenient, and satisfying, in regards to, perfecting service in the fast-food industry. Although these machines are still in their primitive stages of testing, it should be noted that all the data from their performance hasn’t been collected and analyzed yet, so McDonald’s won’t know more until this experiment has concluded.

    With the introduction of Flippy, the burger-flipping robot, being tested at California-based burger locations, investors and consumers will notice a trend towards the use of robotics to simplify the burger making process (as well as adapting to the current state of the industry as a result of the coronavirus). Miso Robotics, a small robotics company that created Flippy, has explained that Flippy functions as a “kitchen-assistant” using its thermal vision and robotic arm to not only help in the preparation of the burgers but, to give specific advice to human chefs in the kitchen as to how to further improve the quality of the burger. While Flippy has initially been designed to work alongside humans in the kitchen, it should be noted that more active re-designs to the product have been put in place to further increase independent performance and functionality to increase its capabilities at doing more than just “flipping burgers”. To further elaborate on the point of why Flippy is unable to do more than “flip burgers” at the moment is because: “…it’s like general intelligence vs. current narrow A.I. existing machine intelligence is brilliant at doing single-tasks exceptionally well” yet, “…it can’t generalize and perform multiple tasks.” Essentially, although the technology behind Flippy, the burger flipping robot, has been able to perform its expressed purpose, it still lacks the capabilities to work more efficiently at doing multiple tasks in the kitchen to replace human labor. Still with rising minimum wage costs and lack of workers being available in this pandemic, Flippy may be able to cut costs and save money for large companies in the fast-food industry in regards to labor. In fact, the need for technology like Flippy in the workplace is so paramount that co-founder and CEO of Miso Robotics, Buck Jordan proclaims that: “…our customers are more concerned about shifts being open than they are replacing workers.” Buck Jordan has also stated that: “the move to automation…is only going to be more pressing as the years go on.” As the demand for home-deliveries has exploded in the past decade, people need more efficient and convenient ways of having their food cooked and delivered to them. Human chefs and delivery drivers at large fast-food corporations can’t compete with the growth of innovative robotics to service this rapidly growing sector of customer service in the fast-food industry. Not only that, but fast-food companies have the need to cut down on increasing costs for hiring and training minimum wage employees to work in the kitchen because of the trend increasing minimum wage costs by state and local governments plus, social distancing regulations during this pandemic moving most of their labor force into unemployment due to fear of the spread of coronavirus. Overall, with these reasons it’s safe to assume that many large fast-food corporations will contribute more investments towards the growth of technology in the future of the American economy, in order to, work towards the goal of cutting costs efficiently in order to allocate more money towards creating a profit in this current climate.

    In summation, as growth in the global economy has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic there’s been a renewed newfound interest towards the trend of the use of technology to facilitate human needs in many essential industries. In the fast food industry, innovation has been greatly emphasized in both establishing a precedent of increased efficiency and convenience in the preparation of customer orders as well as cutting back on labor costs by utilizing technology to replace human labor. McDonald’s has demonstrated with its artificially intelligent deep fryers and voice-activated drive-throughs that automation and further simplification of the labor process is necessary in increasing both customer satisfaction as well as improving the efficiency of service. Flippy, the burger flipping robot, has displayed its potential in replacing minimum wage labor to both reduce the total cost of employment for large fast-food corporations as well as adapt to the current climate of reduced human interaction during the pandemic. Essentially, while this technology for the fast-food industry has only been tested in development, larger-companies should still continue to implement this change for their own benefits of growth in the industry while seizing on the new trends of technology, in order to, vastly update and improve their respective performance over the competition in the industry.

    My Sources:

    -https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2020/04/the-pandemic-is-bringing-us-closer-to-our-robot-takeout-future/

    -https://www.wsj.com/articles/mcdonalds-tests-robot-fryers-and-voice-activated-drive-throughs-11561060920

    -https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/flippy-burger-robot-changing-fast-food/

    -https://thespoon.tech/mcdonalds-is-testing-kitchen-robots-and-ai-powered-drive-thrus-its-about-time/

  8. Christy Delleh May 29, 2020 at 7:21 pm #

    Technology is taking another trend in our society and most people are very comfortable with the ease that is attached to it. For example, the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), a person can control their homes from the click of a button or a tap on their phone screen. The invention of robots is not surprising to serve in such capacity. It is not even a surprise that this has been invented way before the time and inventors were just waiting for the society to grow up to it. When you look in car manufacturing plants, robots are programmed to perform various tasks. The use of robots produces more as compared to humans. Looking at the numbers of cars that are produced by the hour, it is very impossible for humans to come up with such numbers. Robotic automation is bound to take over humans working in information technology and other industries. For example, take a look at the self-serving cashers. With this technology, many cashiers have been laid off because their roles have been taken by machines.

    Machine learning has advanced as well as artificial intelligence with the brilliant experiments of computer scientists. These scientists are modeling robots to behave like humans. Sooner or later there will be no one working in stores, banks, factories, etc… Automatic is the way to go but my only concern is the security threat that they may face. When it comes to humans, there may be some physical controls in place but for these robots, there may exist some gap. Take for example, if a robot is delivering food and encounters some issues such as vandalism, what control would be in place to ensure that the robot is protected during the execution of the task. In as much as robots are threatening the future of humans with respect to labor, they may lack the capacity to think critically when there incidents beyond their functionality.

  9. Tom M June 2, 2020 at 3:44 pm #

    As the pandemic has progressed, there has been major displacement in industries across the globe in which people who have grown accustomed to being in a ‘contactless environment’ which has promoted social distancing and has forced individuals into a fight or flight state of mentality as much of America searches for employment opportunity in other industries aside from the ones that have been temporarily suspended. As businesses across America begin to open, there remains a large percentage of Americans who are looking to get back into the job market and contribute to the economy as many businesses have cut their in-person business significantly. While this company Starship offers extremely unique and useful services to the consumers during a time of need, its growth in terms of labor and size might be somewhat restricted in the fact that their business model is specific to one type of service during extreme circumstances. However, it will be interesting to see as this start-up gains more traction and gains more revenue where they will take their business and expand to as well as how they will respond to other emerging markets and bring on more help to cater to the major unemployment problem that America is facing.
    Starship will be a leader in diversification of product in markets which will add major success to their business. However, regarding the practical application of the service the question of what happens when consumers face issues in their deliveries. Based on personal experiences it is much easier to proceed with a delivery when the order is prompt and accurate and little to be said about the experience. However, people will look to have an intermediary regarding their deliveries if something does not meet their specified requirements. It will be interesting to see how these robots expend and what type of affect they have on the food delivery industry in the near future.

  10. Matthew Simpson June 12, 2020 at 9:28 pm #

    The use of technology becomes very helpful to prevent the risk of human interaction during this pandemic. This technology would help people get food with technology without the threat of the face to face interactions. The campus at George Mason University was quite from the recent COVID-19 pandemics. As you walk the campus by the Starbucks there is a six-wheeled, microwave sized robot zipping along the sidewalk. During the pandemic robots used for this purpose have become quite popular. This allowed companies to start using real-world applications with minimal supervision for real-world applications. After the lockdown was ordered the amount of food deliveries has risen. Many executives have started using two different robot companies, Starship and Kiwibot. The technology for robot deliveries remains very rare but it is a very doable thing to pull off. The demand from the lockdown customers had only gone up with the lo-cost and no need for a tip way of delivery from robot. The robot alone will not prevent the human-driven food delivery entity. After some time we will need bigger and faster robots to do jobs in suburban and rural areas. This new kind of robot is only a little compared to what is to come. An area they are expanding this technology in is Fairfax City, Virginia. There is a lot of people in this city that will rely heavily on this system as a means to receive food daily. This delivery system will also help with grocery shopping as well as take out food. The only problem with this robot system is sometimes they could become very busy without having enough hands for all the service they serve. People would compare many of the fees in using the robot delivery system is very comparable to using a Grubhub or Door Dash. this service would be very cost-efficient for people to use instead of paying a delivery driving entirely.

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