Last night I found myself running toward my house to meet a robot. I had just returned from a weekend of surviving on GPRS internet in one of the most remote parts of the UK, so I needed a good dinner. During my trip home, I ordered Chinese from a local restaurant, expecting a human to deliver it at 7PM. Surprisingly, minutes after my order I received a text telling me a robot would deliver my order a lot earlier than I was expecting. What?!
After a mad dash involving a train, tram, Uber, bus, and my suitcase, I reached my apartment block to find an adorable little robot sitting outside. Several people walked past it without even acknowledging its odd existence, probably because it looked like a futuristic letter carrier’s delivery trolley. “Your Just Eat delivery has arrived, please come outside the building and unlock the robot from here,” read a text message with a link to unlock the robot. I clicked the unlock button from a website and the hood of the robot popped open to reveal my dinner. Once I had grabbed it, I hit the lock and return button and the six-wheeled robot disappeared back to its base around half a mile away. Simple.
The robot is controlled remotely
While I was excitedly taking photos of this human replacement, my girlfriend ran inside away from what she described as an embarrassing nerdy spectacle. I didn’t get to see how this robot interacted with other pedestrians or see many reactions, but a neighbor managed to capture it on its way to my house.
It rides along pavements, crosses roads, and avoids driving into humans, and can travel up to three miles at 4 mph. The robot is part of a trial by Starship Technologies, a company created by two Skype co-founders. Starship is developing self-driving robotic delivery vehicles, but the current robot isn’t autonomous just yet.
The robot is controlled remotely, thanks to a myriad of sensors and cameras that let someone drive it around a busy city to avoid dangerous situations. Starship’s robot even has a minder that walks nearby it to ensure it’s not vandalized and items aren’t stolen. It all looks very futuristic, but for now a lot of humans are still involved in getting this from A to B.
Starship has been trialling these robots with Just Eat, a huge delivery service in the UK, in several areas of London over the past year, and if you’re randomly selected (like I was) then you’ll receive the text message after your order. The process is as convenient as you might expect robot deliveries to be, and the food remained warm even though I didn’t pick it up for 15 minutes. The robot minder only had to call me and check I was coming to fetch my food because I was running late. Otherwise, the minder stays out of the process to give the illusion that a robot arrived at your front door on its own.
It’s a neat demonstration of what our future will eventually entail, but a scary reminder that robots will continue to destroy jobs in the name of delivering automation.