The droids you’re looking for?

Berkeley has a student-run tech startup with food delivery droids. They’re wildly ineffective, and that’s what makes them alluring.

Berkeley’s delivery droids are called Kiwis, and they’re run by a UC Berkeley startup called Kiwibot. The bots are supposed to be some 65% more efficient than humans. The company works with three types of robots, one for each segment of the trip. The only one I saw was the Kiwi Bot, a small droid that allegedly covers the last 400 meters of the delivery.

Seeing the AI-controlled R2D2’s navigate their way through the Berkeley traffic is pretty interesting. They have to manage with lots of pedestrians and cyclists, especially (not particularly known for their defensive driving). Sometimes, the droids can be found idle on a sidewalk. Waiting for new input, they seem to be resting in the sun. Waving your hand in front of them makes their digitized face wink at you.

They are also part of the cheapening of labor. According to the website, “Our most important KPIs are Orders per Robot per Hour and Number of Human interventions required per day – these are metrics that change our way of execution and allow us to be 50% cheaper than using a human courier.” That’s not to sa that there’s no proverbial human in the loop. The robots are what Kiwibot calls “semi-autonomous.” They can navigate most sidewalks and avoid pedestrians, but each of them still has somebody monitoring it every five seconds.

The irony is that this robotic future is significantly less efficient than the human one. Due to their defensive driving protocols, the bots don’t seem particularly speedy. They stop when any object comes close, or makes an unexpected turn. Anyone who has seen a delivery bike in cities around the world – whether London or Cape Town or Shanghai – will know the amount of risk these professionals are taking when maneuvring their bikes through traffic. It seems difficult to imagine a robot that would be allowed to take the same risks.

That’s not to say they don’t come with their own hazards. In December 2018, one of Kiwi‘s delivery robots caught fire while out and about on the campus of UC Berkeley. The future of robotic delivery is not just one of cheaper labor, but also of thermal runaway batteries.

Most people in the streets seem to have a love-hate relationship with the little bots. They get in the way, and their behavior is not very predictable – but these issues are weirdly congruent with their little animated LCD screen eyes. Much like R2D2, their imperfections (despite the company’s efficiency-oriented messaging) are why they work. Speaking to The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley senior Kiah Martinez put it well: “KiwiBots have been an essential part of our campus, and although they are really ineffective in delivering food, they’re cute and meme-able.”

Cuteness alone doesn’t save tech startups, though. Recently, Kiwibot put out a press release noting that they will be ending their current Kiwibot delivery service in December 2019 in order to go through a “reinvention” before they reopen on Jan. 21, 2020. Upgraded Kiwibots will undergo a new robot design, “including a 300% improvement in durability”.

It’s difficult to see a near future in which the Kiwi will be more efficient than a human. But passing by one of them on my bicycle as it was going about its merry way, jerkily moving forward in fits and starts, made me want to order my take-out through one of them all the more.

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