A fleet of 25 robots started delivering Blaze custom pizzas, Starbucks lattes and Dunkin’ Donuts pastries to students at George Mason University’s Fairfax, Va., campus last week. But their quiet presence on campus raised an interesting question: What are the rules for robots delivering food?
It turns out those guidelines, mostly involving safety and customer service, are largely unwritten. But that hasn’t stopped the experts from thinking about them.
Did you say robots delivering food?
If your idea of a robot is shaped by the work of mid-20th-century science fiction (as mine is), then your imagination is running wild right about now. Robots delivering food! Isaac Asimov would have a field day.
So before we answer the question, let’s just get a few things out of the way:
✓ The robots, developed by Starship Technologies, are “small” and “cute.” They don’t menace the professors or students.
✓ The robots do not shoot you with lasers if you get in the way. They drive around you.
✓ The robots do not run amok. They use a GPS pinpoint on a map to find your location to drop off your order.
There, don’t you feel better?
What could possibly go wrong?
But seriously, they’re delivering food. What could possibly go wrong?
Some of the rules for these clever food-delivery bots are outlined in a message from administrators to George Mason students.
The robots move s-l-o-w-l-y
They move at about 4 mph. Delivery happens within 30 minutes. Robots will not be able to enter buildings, so you have to meet them at the door.
No phone, no service
Bring your phone to the pick-up point. The locked robots can only be unlocked through the app.
Space is limited
The small robots can hold up to three pizzas, along with a few salads and drinks. They are temperature controlled so your pizza will stay hot while your salads will stay cold, according to officials.
The robots do social media
Seriously. The fleet of robots even has its own Twitter and Instagram – the handle is @StarshipGMU. Told you they were smart!
“Our robots are designed to always be safe and polite,” a spokesman for Starship told me. “One of the things we’re proud of is how happy customers are when the robot arrives with their order. We’ve received thank-you notes and special robot drawings from every location where we operate. The bots have become famous across social media at GMU, with many students posting pictures of their deliveries.”
But what if something does go wrong? The biggest potential problem, according to officials, is a collision with a robot.
“The robots look both ways before crossing a street and can detect people walking around them,” the university reassures students. “They are not likely to run into a person standing still, but if something does happen, incidents can be reported to Mason Police.”
What are the real rules for robots delivering food?
Other than not running over a student or exploding, the number one rule for a food delivery robot is food safety, according to Candess Zona-Mendola, the editor of MakeFoodSafe.com, an advocacy site.
Specifically, it’s keeping foods at the right temperature. “In Haidilao, a robotic restaurant chain in China, an automated cold room kept at 0 to 4 degrees Celsius is on view, where queues of robotic arms prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables,” she says.
Zona-Mendola says robots are not equal substitutes for humans. At MIT’s robo restaurant Spyce, for example, humans still handle food prep. She says cutting, chopping, and measuring each ingredient still needs a personal touch.
“Workers on-site take care of the details and load everything into containers for the robots to select,” she adds. “Humans are still needed to clean up.”
Sodexo, the food service company working with Starship to deploy the robot deliveries, says humans are still essential. Some tasks, such as food preparation, are still being done by people. Other jobs can’t — and should never be — automated.
“We firmly believe that the community that’s built when you share a meal together can never be replaced,” a spokeswoman told me. “Many of our students have longstanding relationships with our employees and see them as their second parents or grandparents while away from home.”
“Robots should not be used to replace customer relationships”
Good customer service is also important, say observers.
“Obviously, you have the potential to lose the human touch,” says Bret Greenstein, the head of Artificial Intelligence for Cognizant. “We may miss chatting with people and saying ‘Have a great night,’ and, “Wow it’s cold out there.'”
He adds, “Robots should not be used to replace customer relationships.”
Food delivery has always been a guessing game, he adds. Even under the best of circumstances, with experienced human delivery, questions remain.
“Will I get my order or someone else’s?” he asks. “Will the order be right? Even if it was understood when the order was taken, there are a lot of handoffs in a restaurant and lots of room to get an order wrong. Will the charges be correct?”
How will the rules for robots delivering food address questions like these?
I pressed Greenstein on the rules. Didn’t Asimov have the Three Laws of Robotics?
✓ A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
✓ A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
✓ A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
“Like Asimov’s rules, which are all about protecting people and robots, companies that use robots and AI to provide delivery and service must put customers first at every point of their experience,” he says. “Don’t design for automating tasks, reinvent the experience to leverage the power of AI and robotics, not to replicate what people did.”
It’s only a matter of time before robots show up at your doorstep with a package from Amazon, a parcel from the postal service, or a hot pizza from Domino’s. If they don’t deliver, maybe you can invoke Greenstein’s rules for robots delivering food.