The robot and I met at the southwest corner of Center and Shattuck. It was 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the streets were bustling. The robot was small and boxy, something like a cooler on wheels. I knelt down at what I presumed was the robot’s front end. It winked a pixilated eye.
Following instructions I’d received in advance, I raised a hand and flashed an “okay” sign. The robot emitted a pleasant dinging sound and a hatch on top slowly opened. I reached in and removed a grease-stained paper bag. Inside were two slices of warm pizza.
“Pretty cool huh?” said David Rodriguez, looking on proudly.
“Very cool,” I said.
Rodriguez works in business development for Kiwi, a Berkeley robotics company that’s trying to change the way food is delivered. Much like Caviar or Door Dash, Kiwi customers order food from participating restaurants using an app. But rather than arriving via delivery person, the food is delivered by a Kiwibot, an autonomous robot on wheels. Teaching a robot to navigate chaotic city streets and sidewalks alone is a huge technical challenge, one that Kiwi is still in the process of mastering. But they may face a challenge that’s bigger still: a public with misgivings about sharing public spaces—and jobs—with robots.
As one of the first robots to share our sidewalks, Rodriguez believes Kiwibots can help people get used to the idea.
“Kiwi Bots are fostering the interaction between humans and robots,” he says. “It’s something that’s going to happen, but it’s a very delicate process.”
The idea for Kiwibots can be traced to Bogota, Colombia where COO Sergio Pachón and two friends went to college. They started a grocery delivery service, similar to Instacart, but for college campuses in Latin America. Following the company’s success, the trio decided to pursue a long-held dream and move to the mecca of tech, the Bay Area. They arrived in Berkeley in 2016 and founded Kiwi, which then used human couriers to deliver food on Cal’s campus. But they encountered an unexpected challenge: Paying couriers in the United States was far more expensive than back home in Colombia. That meant they had to charge high delivery fees.
“In the end you paid the same for the delivery as the food,” Pachón says. The answer, the young men decided, was robots. By cutting the human from the equation, costs could be reduced because robots don’t require salary, benefits, or vacation time. The savings could be passed along to the customer in the form of cheap delivery fees—and no tips.
In March of 2017 Kiwi rolled out prototype bots. The bots earned Kiwi a spot with SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s own startup accelerator. Kiwi used the funding to build its current fleet of twenty bots, which now deliver food to hungry students in a one-mile radius around both UC Berkeley and Stanford.
Kiwibots navigate sidewalks on their own, a talent they acquired using advanced neural networks—basically computer brains that learn from practice. But the big challenge, just as it is for young humans, is crossing intersections. For now, Kiwibots get a hand navigating crosswalks from humans stationed in Bogota, Colombia, who steer them remotely using Xbox controllers.
“You can get to ninety percent autonomy pretty quickly,” Pachón says. “But to get from ninety to one hundred percent, that’s really challenging.”
Kiwi is not the only company with autonomous delivery bots in development, but theirs may be the cutest. Starship, a company created by co-founders of Skype, is testing sleek delivery robots that look like they’d be at home on the Death Star, and Marble’s hefty delivery bots look like rolling washing machines. But Kiwibots are designed to make you go awww. They’re small and brightly colored (in Cal gold and blue) and unlike their rivals they have faces. Each bot has a permanent smile and digitized eyeballs that are prone to winking.
“Having these kind of eyes creates empathy,” Rodriquez says. “We make them look like something you could love, and it’s just amazing how people respond to that.”
Though people may not be falling head over heals at the sight of a Kiwibot, charming humans might be easier than you’d think. In robotics there’s a concept called social valence, which describes the surprising quickness with which humans will ascribe human qualities to robots—and even become emotionally attached to them. If your Roomba could smile, your kid might cry every time it got caught under the couch.
Making Kiwibots cute may smooth their acceptance in public spaces. And Rodriguez says, it could also prompt people to help a Kiwibot in a jam. “Sometimes the bots fall over or get stuck somewhere. So someday they might be able to make a face like ‘help me’ so that people will put them upright.”
Making robots appear friendly may also help to ease our fears about their ever-increasing encroachment in our work lives. The fact is, robots are coming for our jobs. That might sound a bit alarmist, but is it? Tesla will soon roll out a fleet of automated semi trucks, and this January, Amazon opened a grocery store in Seattle that did away with human checkers altogether. Algorithms already write news articles, make decisions about whether or not to parole prison inmates, and research has even shown that in some cases A.I. is better at diagnosing disease than human doctors. Just how far up the skilled job ladder robots will ultimately climb is uncertain, but professions that may have previously seemed out of reach of A.I. may soon be in the crosshairs—if they aren’t already.
Granted, getting a pizza slice delivered by a cute little robot is probably not the first step of the robot apocalypse. Probably.
My slices, ordered via the Kiwi Campus app, were delivered by Kiwibot #13. After the successful handoff, Rodriquez and I trailed #13 at a distance as it rolled down Center Street. On its rear end a miniature bumper sticker read, “How’s My Programming?”
Most passersby craned their necks, their expressions ranging from surprise to annoyance to astonishment. People snapped pictures. Others stopped and watched.
“I’ve seen one of those at a hotel,” a man declared to no one in particular. “It was, like, holding a tray.”
There is something incredible, if a little unnerving, about watching a robot navigate the sidewalk without human control. The street was heavy with foot traffic, but #13 deftly avoided all pedestrians. It would roll several yards then stop, as if contemplating its next move, before beginning to starting again.
“What’s he doing?” I asked, noticing that I’d both gendered the robot and ascribed it the human act of contemplation. As it turned out, that’s sort of what it was doing. Rodriguez explained that it was probably determining an optimum place to wait for its next order, or maybe receiving a new order. He didn’t know for sure.
#13 passed a group of twenty-somethings with backpacks, and one of them made an inscrutable face at the robot.
“I just don’t trust some robot to be bringing my food,” said Aldane Walters. Like his friends, Leah Green and Clarissa Del Visco, he is a student at Berkeley City College. “I have no proof, but I feel like it’s not secure. Maybe there’s some technology to prevent people from intercepting my food?”
Green had different concerns. “I like making small talk with delivery boys,” she said. “I think human interaction is important. Talking to someone, giving them service, being polite—that kind of thing.”
“That’s somebody’s job going to that machine,” Del Visco added. “Maybe you think some other way about it,” she said to Rodriquez, “but that’s how we think.”
“That’s okay,” David said cheerfully. “I have an argument for that. And I want to know what you think of it.” He explained that one could save five or six dollars per delivery using a Kiwibot instead of a human delivery service. More money in the pocket is good for everyone, he said. “If you use a Kiwi Bot for your Chipotle, after the second delivery you’ll have saved enough money for a third burrito.”
“I’m Mexican,” DelVisco responded. “So I don’t eat Chipotle.” Everyone laughed, Rodriguez included.
“Still,” Green said, “I’d rather tip a delivery guy who’s just trying to pay rent than pay less for a robot.”
Rodriguez smiled and nodded. “I think this is a very nice discussion,” he said. “Those are topics that we really need to address. Everything you do has an impact. That’s the reason we talk, no?”
The three students agreed.
Rodriguez told me that this was the beauty, and challenge, of introducing Kiwibots in Berkeley. Students on the whole are more open to technological innovation, he said, but they also have strong opinions, which can be challenging. In the end, he believes, discussion like these will make the company better.
We realized we’d been so engrossed in the discussion we’d lost #13.
“Was your pizza warm?” Pachón asked. We were back in the SkyDeck offices at the top floor of Chase Tower, high above downtown Berkeley. I told him it was and he smiled, satisfied.
I asked him about the challenge of gaining peoples’ acceptance of the robots.
“I think it’s something that takes time,” Pachón says. “At the beginning people were really surprised about seeing the robots.” Now, he says, just about everyone in Berkeley has crossed paths with the bots.
“We want interaction. We want people to see the robot as part of the environment,” he says. “That’s why we make them look so friendly.”
What about jobs? Pachón acknowledges that robots will shake things up.
“I see in five years all deliveries being made by robots.” That’s food, packages, medicines, everything.
Pachón supports an idea that Bill Gates shared publicly last year, that companies that use robots in place of human workers should be required to pay taxes equivalent to the income taxes the replaced human workers would have paid. That money, Gates said, should be used for job training to help the workers get employed in other fields.
“In the end we are part of a community,” says Pachón. “The companies that are making the money and changing things, they have to cooperate with that.”
In December, the San Francisco board of supervisors voted unanimously to ban delivery bots from most city streets, citing safety concerns. Pachón doesn’t worry about that happening in Berkeley. So far, the city and university have been supportive of the Kiwibots. “Berkeley is a really amazing city,” he says.
In two weeks, Kiwi will receive a shipment of several dozen new bots, redesigned with updated software and hardware, and a sleek new look. Their plan is to expand the service soon to other college campuses in California, and eventually throughout the country. If it goes as planned, Pachón says, some day Kiwibots be winking and smiling their way into peoples’ hearts all over the world.