Here are the rules for robots delivering food

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.

Among them:
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.”

It’s hardly the only danger. At UC Berkeley, a food delivery bot operated by KiwiBot reportedly burst into flames in December. No one was hurt.

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.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Posted in Smart Consumer

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.