- Michael Dempsey
- Business Technology Reporter
It’s a sweltering day in Milton Keynes, and here I am chasing a little orange flag on a white six-wheeled robot, relieved that it has slowed down and stopped.
Christian Bonifacio took out a giant chocolate bar from the robot that stopped in front of her house. Bonifacio rushes home again because she’s about to make a Zoom business call, but she has plenty of time to express her passion for home delivery with the robots that send all those jogging machines across her neighborhood sidewalk.
“I love robots. Sometimes you find one of them and you help him and he says ‘Thank you’.”
Starship Technologies started Starship technologies The robot delivery service in Milton Keynes four years ago, and has since expanded, adding more towns last month.
After decades of playing the role of a sci-fi villain, robots are now a part of life in many European towns, with people who not only welcome them, but are quick to come to their aid if needed. So what’s the story?
Amber Case is an Oregon-based expert on human-robot interactions and the ways modern technology is changing everyday life. “In the movies, robots are portrayed as technology that constantly attacks us,” she says. “But delivery robots serve us.”
Case believes that the occasions when a robot hits an obstacle and needs the help of a bystander are an important part of the relationship between humans and robots. “Technology can be magical when it needs our help. We love a robot that needs us, and when we help it, it creates a connection between us and it.”
Curiously, Case is critical of the delivery robots operated by Starship Technologies on the pavements of Milton Keynes.
These robots run on batteries, are called and opened by a mobile app, and are equipped with sensors that detect the presence of pedestrians, as well as an amplifier. This allows its operator to talk remotely with the people he is watching through the cameras installed on the robot.
But Casey says that this arsenal of technology is not being implemented correctly: “I feel like they’re putting technology on the wrong part of the journey. People are really good at taking different paths and getting to a certain house. Is it just a fetish for making things self-moving?”
Despite these caveats, Case admits that “the Starship team executed their project the right way, recognizing the importance of ensuring that [الروبوتات] Not scary, but cute. They seem to pay more attention to design than other robotics manufacturers, and a well-designed robot has a better chance of success.”
The design element seems to be popular with residents. Victoria Butterworth remembers that robots were one of the reasons she moved to Milton Keynes.
“It caught my eye, it’s unique and unconventional.”
“Obviously there were many other reasons to move here,” she adds, but robots played a role in her life when her dog had a herniated disc and needed constant care.
Robots allowed her to take care of her dog without leaving the house to shop. “It was a godsend when the dog was sick.”
She says the burgeoning connections between humans and robots in Milton Keynes have dispelled the stereotype of the fearsomely aggressive robot.
“When you see one of them, you don’t get the sense of fear that science fiction portrays, you see a cute little character on the street, it makes your circus more enjoyable.”
Andy Curtis, director of Starship UK operations, which is responsible for operating 180 bots in Milton Keynes, says each bot operates within a “consciousness bubble” that hears itself alerting people to its presence and thanking them if they help it. “It’s designed to be gentle, not aggressive.”
The gentle behavior of the robot is no accident. “People are quick to help if the robot is having trouble moving across a surface, and the robot plays a thank you message,” says Curtis.
In Estonia, home of Starship, people come to help if a robot gets stuck in the snow or ice on the streets of the capital, Tallinn, drag it onto the pavement, and are rewarded with a familiar thank-you note.
Adam Rang, a Tallinn-based businessman, admits that robots make him feel excited. But his two-year-old doesn’t share that sentiment. “I point it out to get his attention, but he doesn’t care. He’s more interested in buses. It shows how normal robots are to today’s baby boomers, even though we’ve been waiting our whole lives to see those sci-fi robots see promised.”
He adds that motorists in Tallinn have become accustomed to stopping at pedestrian crossings to allow robots to cross the road, even though Estonia’s traffic law does not give them the same right as pedestrians.
Rang believes that part of the empathy and familiarity people feel for robots stems from their disillusionment with an unpredictable future. “Many of the predictions of science fiction stories have not come true. But robots are giving us the future we were promised.”
Back in Milton Keynes, robots are queuing outside a fish and chip shop on a Friday night. One of the shop’s owners, Johnny Pereira, explains why this combination of traditional food and technology is so popular with regular customers and locals.
“Parents love ordering fish and chips delivered by robots to the family, they are popular with children. The service has definitely increased demand. I can see the customers outside the shop are not Milton Keynes – they are looking at the robots. The people who live here are used to seeing it.”
At the local robot collection point next to a small supermarket, small machines line the sidewalk waiting for the next order.
Stephanie Daniels and her son Noah stop by, also fascinated by the ingenuity of the robots’ creation. “I love her, she is very innovative, she has very good sensors. She is very cute and very strange at the same time. She also says ‘Thank you’!”