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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2 Comments

  1. COVID has allowed machines to take over the business world as we know it. Just a couple days ago in class we discussed how Amazon is going t start using drones to capitalize off of the fact that in store shopping has now gone down 40 to 50 percent from where it was before the pandemic. Now that Amazon has the resources to reach all different kinds of markets such as in home things and grocery, thanks to their addition of whole foods in 2017, they now can fit everyone’s needs and lower the risk factor of COVID all at once. The downside of these drones however is now it creates les of a demand for in store employees and truck drivers. These drones are designed to only fly a maximum of 5 miles from the distribution center meaning the would only need truck drivers for people who don’t live near a distribution center. It is important with this fact that you realize that 94% of people in America live within 5 miles of a distribution center. As much as robots make life “easier” in the short term they also make it harder in the broader view.

  2. Since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, we have been faced with the task of trying to still stay connected with the real world, while being steered away from it at the same time. This article highlights the importance of AI (on some levels) and the need for autonomous engineering. As the main topic of the article, it discusses how these small little robots would both pick up and deliver food for students across the campus. During the pandemic, I had seen videos on various social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, of these same robots going around college campuses and delivering food. I find it quite unique to see that students can just order food and whatnot and have it delivered in a matter of minutes in a small portable refrigerator. During the COVID 19 pandemic, we as a society have started to see a rise in this autonomous technology because we were told to stay away from one another. Given that this technology has had almost 3 years to improve itself (as of the start of the pandemic until the date of this post), it can be seen that it is something that we need in our society. This would be because of the time we have had to develop these robots to accommodate the pandemic. It leaves us wondering if there is more to discover with this state of the art technology. With that in mind, robots have started to “take over” the food industry. I mean think about it, robots are used in factories to box various food items on a conveyor belt and are then stored. Now that we have these robots delivering food for us, it leaves us wondering if companies like DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, etc will be able to economically keep themselves stable. It goes without saying that if robots are now the future, then there is no need for humans to deliver food, which would take a lot of people out of the work force and force companies to shut down. This is scary to think about because as mentioned before, robots have started to take over the food industry. The article states that this company known as “Starship” has a unique new way of delivering food to people. Now, this is not just getting fast food delivered, this is actual grocery shopping. The method relies on a person (specifically Starship employee) getting an order through the app, buying the groceries, and then loading them onto a robot for transportation of the groceries to the (lazy) customer. The article says that James (customer) ordered his food and stated, “The food came in about 30 to 35 minutes, and it was still pretty hot” (Lee 10). Overall, the usage of robots to perform day to day tasks for us humans is definitely useful to us, but what does it mean for those who will eventually be put out of a job because of robots? It is haunting to think that one day robots may be the reason why there are no human beings working in the food industry. Having a robot take your order and then make it, or take your order and then deliver it, is certainly something the world is not ready for. Technology simply moves way too fast.

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