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Socializing the autonomous robot

An artificial intelligence expert says we need to do a better job socializing delivery robots.

(Image: Starship Technologies)

The University of Pittsburgh’s decision to pause testing of Starship Technologies’ food delivery robots yesterday highlights concerns over the safety of autonomous delivery vehicles as more hit the sidewalk and other public walkways.

The campus pulled the sleek two-foot tall robots after a student in a wheelchair said one trapped her in a curb ramp. The robots apparently wait in the ramp to cross the street, blocking access for wheelchair users.

For more insight on the human-robot interaction, and what it means for AV companies and citizens, FW spoke with Anat Caspi, Principal Scientist at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. Caspi is also the Director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, whose mission is to develop, translate and deploy open source universally accessible technologies. 

She talked about the need to socialize delivery robots, “brittle” sidewalks and why logistics companies should pay to use the public right of way. (Interview excerpts have been edited.)

FW: A food delivery robot didn’t get out of the curb ramp to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. What is the lesson learned? 

AC: Engineering teams should be required to consider the social implications of what they’re sending out there. A huge part of the technology is the human-robot interaction, and that has to be part of the evaluation. 

FW: To what extent are logistics companies prioritizing that interaction?

AC: This is a first-to-market industry. The most costly portion of the delivery pipeline is the freight-to-door services, and that is why companies like Amazon are interested in mobilizing robots right away. But that is also why the human interaction is sort of an afterthought – or no thought. 

FW: How should technologists respond to the problem?

AC: We are pretty good at avoiding collisions. We have sensors that are well adapted to understanding how close robots are to objects. We aren’t very good at socializing robots. We haven’t gotten there. Robots haven’t had interactions with humans and human spaces so that we can build technology at level where it needs to be.

FW: Public testing like Starship Technologies rollout on college campuses are designed to do just that.

AC: Having this flagship kind of test is a good idea in that it already highlights how complex these interactions are. You can’t just dump these machines out without a modicum of understanding of when and what they need to do to accommodate different situations. So it highlights a couple of the more messy problems of introducing any kind of autonomous agent into pedestrian walkways. 

[Responding to the Pittsburgh incident, Starship spokesman Henry Harris-Burland told the Pittsburgh News that the robots are supposed to wait behind the curb ramp and the student’s experience was a result of a mapping error at that particular intersection.]

FW: What does the incident suggest about how robots are reshaping public spaces?

AC: It highlights how much the built environment cannot accommodate too much in the thoroughfare. This is just one robot, and already it’s creating an overcrowded condition alongside the walkway. It shows how brittle our pedestrian infrastructure is. Hopefully it can promote government and institutions to improve walkability overall. It could also tighten compliance with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements.

FW: What do you mean when you say our sidewalks are “brittle?” 

AC: They are literally brittle. You see so many sidewalks that are cracked, broken. And as companies make sidewalks their commercial space, they need to better invest in those spaces to gain better access. Unfortunately government and institutions haven’t really understood that. Robots accessing your walkways should come at a cost to the commercial interests that are doing business there.

FW: A financial cost?

AC: It should come at a cost to use. But the robots are also gathering a lot of data about our passageways that cities don’t have resources to collect but really need. A lot of sub-agencies require it. It’s about first response, coordination of projects, where does it make sense to drill. Robots are roving around and collecting a lot of data that should be shared. That’s part of the cost of maneuvering in our public spaces.

FW: Uber and Lyft have battled cities over data sharing. The issue isn’t as well publicized in the food delivery space.

AC: As the public we need to to insist those kinds of considerations are taken into the technology. It’s incumbent on our engineering teams to bring on board people who understand that. And nobody is requesting it. When Snohomish County [Washington] invited Amazon to have its robots on its walkways, there was no mention of what are some basic standards required of the robots. Nor was there any mention of data privacy.

FW: Elaborate.

AC: There was a case when a crime was committed in the presence of a robot, and imagery was used to identify the criminal. So that is another big question, about the privacy of the data they are collecting. You are being filmed unbeknownst to you, and can that be used as evidence. 

FW: Final thoughts?

AC: We’re talking about robots harming humans, but there has been a lot of conversation about the converse — about humans harming robots. Someone sent out a social robot with a message about you can play with me. They were trying to see how far this robot would get, and it was vandalized. It’s another example of how the social interaction between machines and humans has not played a role in the conversation.


  1. Sheryl

    Seems like if we made these robots resemble small children it would give the impression that we need to be careful with them and that they may not be completely aware of the social expectations for behavior. No one vandalizes small children or expects them to know what to do. In addition, they should have the ability to accept bumps and some flexibility to negotiate different environments.

    1. Troy

      Lol They have. The movie is called I robot. Actually with modern technology im sure there will be sensors in both the robots and cars and trucks to identify and protect them from accidents. I mean you can already make a truck stop on a dime or prevent a collision.

Comments are closed.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]