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Will Dalek chilly bins conquer the last mile?

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
16 October 2019

In Berkeley, California last week I met the Kiwibots – a tribe of 4-wheeled robots about the size of a family chilly bin. They drive around the university campus and surrounding streets, delivering food and drinks to people who are too busy, too lazy, or too infatuated with these cute little machines to get up and feed themselves at one of the hundreds of local food outlets. 

Why “Kiwibot”? I don’t know. They’re not brown, furry or nocturnal. And they’re not alone. They’re pursued by their strikingly similar six-wheeled cousins Starship, who are running around Milton Keynes and the campus of George Mason University, and Amazon’s Scout delivery bots in Seattle and Irvine. 

These and other companies are all trying to find ways to automate the ‘last mile’ of the delivery supply chain to clients’ doorsteps – whether on wheels or with drones. This involves navigating through complex environments, coordinating delivery of packages to different destinations in the most efficient way possible. And the test projects are as much about understanding and shaping social reactions to the machines as they are about testing the hardware and software involved.

Following a Kiwibot through the Berkeley campus and up a side street to a frat house, I saw it veer drunkenly from one side of the path to the other. It stopped and started repeatedly as it reacted to passing people, paper bags and squirrels, or as it faced fixed obstacles such as fallen branches, litter, signposts and curbs. I didn’t get to see one trying to cross the street (not to mention going up stairs – the traditional nemesis of the Dalek…).

For all the impressive AI, sensing, GPS mechanical technology in play, it’s clear that these delivery robots have a long way yet to go before they can cope with the complexities of a human and natural environment. The robots struggle to do a fraction what comes naturally to the three-year-olds who often follow them around the streets. I was reminded of David Autor’s paper that mentions the difficulty of teaching machines to do things that small children could achieve easily. Robots are far better at managing tightly prescribed circumstances with routine tasks.

LadderA ladder is child’s play for a toddler, less so for a Dalek…   Source: Amelia Sharman

The Kiwibots’ website says their aim is not to replace human delivery workers, but to boost their productivity. They claim a human delivery worker can handle 15 deliveries an hour supported by a squadron of Kiwibots – which is far higher than an Uber Eats delivery worker. But the Kiwibots’ average delivery distance is about 200 metres – within the confines of a packed university campus, an unsupported human may be equally effective. 

In fact, the whole exercise seems extremely labour-intensive at this stage in development. 

  • The Kiwibots rely on humans riding Segways to bring orders from food outlets to a Kiwibot staging post, load them up, close their lids and send them on their way (no pizzas bigger than 6 inches sorry!). Amazon’s Scouts are for now being followed everywhere by human minders.
  • Kiwibots don’t really navigate themselves autonomously, other than to work around obstacles between waypoints laid down every few metres by a remote human handler, who can see and control them through six onboard cameras. The handlers are in Colombia (where the $2 hourly wage costs for robot-monitors are considerably lower than in San Francisco Bay).
  • On reaching their destination, the Kiwibots can only sit there blinking their cute liquid crystal eyes, waiting for a human to come and open their lid. The machines can’t yet empty themselves, knock on a door, load a letterbox or climb stairs.
  • At the end of the day, a human comes to collect them in a van and take them home to their little electric beds.

Take-outs

My robot-delivery take-outs from my encounters with the Kiwibots is that automating the ‘last mile’ of the supply chain remains a huge challenge even in welcoming environments amongst campus-loads of tech-friendly millennials. Top-notch AI and robotics still struggle where a high level of interaction is required with humans and the worlds we build around us. I expect there will be plenty of delivery jobs for some time to come, but if they involve working with these cool little machines, at least they’ll be a bit more fun.

Notes
Berkley bears1. John sent this post from the US, where he is currently at a class reunion for the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Go Bears!

Photo source: John MacCormick

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