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The current time is Thu Jun 20 14:52:51 2019
Utopia Talk / Politics / Delivery robot operater in Colombia
| Wed Jun 05 02:28:39|
Hilarious jobs of the future
Kiwibots win fans at UC Berkeley as they deliver fast food at slow speeds
May 26, 2019
Karis Tang, age 2½, squealed with excitement when she saw a Kiwibot rolling through Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley.
“The robot can move,” she said, bending over for a closer look at the little delivery vehicle’s “face,” an electronic display that smiled, winked and displayed hearts.
Four-wheeled, cooler-size Kiwibots are a familiar sight at UC Berkeley as they ferry burritos, Big Macs and bubble tea to students. They’re social media stars, their pictures posted on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. Some students dressed up as them for Halloween. After one caught fire due to a battery issue, students held a candlelight vigil for it.
“We have been adopted by the community,” said Sasha Iatsenia, head of product for Kiwi Campus, the small Berkeley startup behind the robots. “We have become a cultural icon, a meme.”
It’s not universal adoration, though. One local resident kidnapped a robot; Berkeley police rescued it from his car trunk. Iatsenia’s response: “We need broader dialogue and a listening tour.” Other people have sometimes kicked the little bots, drawing outrage from bystanders.
But overall, Berkeley has been a welcoming test bed for the fleet of up to 40 robots that have permission to operate on the campus and nearby neighborhoods.
Berkeley’s open door contrasts with San Francisco, which limits delivery bots to nine total for the whole city and confines them to industrial areas. The city has yet to grant permits to Marble and Starship, the two companies that have applied.
Kiwi is now weighing expansion to a dozen other universities, including Stanford.
“College campuses are the perfect playground,” Iatsenia said. “They have large populations of people enthusiastic to try new things, who eat a lot and don’t have a lot of time to get food. Without robots, they’d eat ramen all day.”
Kiwibot, now on version 3.2, has been through numerous iterations during its two years of operations. Various versions are lined up in the company’s office inside the UC Berkeley Skydeck accelerator/incubator. Skydeck is among Kiwi’s investors; the company has raised $2.4 million.
Version 1 was a small shopping basket perched on a remote-control car with training wheels; the “face” was simply printed on a sticker. A low-slung pizza delivery bot didn’t make the cut — the current Kiwibot can handle only personal-size pizzas but the next version will accommodate bigger pies. A hulking trash can-size model designed to enter restaurants to pick up food also didn’t work out.
Kiwi strives to make the robots endearing, like little R2-D2s.
“The concept is ‘kawaii,’” a Japanese word for cute, said CEO Felipe Chavez, citing examples like Pokémon’s Pikachu character. “You create an authentic connection when people feel characters are very cute.”
No matter how adorable, a robot that hogs the sidewalk won’t win fans. “The sidewalks are sacred; we need to make sure the robot will interact in the easiest way with citizens,” Chavez said.
The Kiwibots do not figure out their own routes. Instead, people in Colombia, the home country of Chavez and his two co-founders, plot “waypoints” for the bots to follow, sending them instructions every five to 10 seconds on where to go.
As with other offshoring arrangements, the labor savings are huge. The Colombia workers, who can each handle up to three robots, make less than $2 an hour, which is above the local minimum wage.
Another cost saving is that human assistance means the robots don’t need pricey equipment such as lidar sensors to “see” around them. Manufactured in China and assembled in the U.S., Kiwibots cost only about $2,500 each, Iatsenia said.
The bots navigate the short distances between waypoints on their own and use AI to avoid pedestrians and stay centered on the sidewalk, Kiwi said. GPS lets the Colombian operators see the robot on a street map while onboard video cameras show them a robot’s-eye view of its surroundings. The lag time is just 150 milliseconds, less than the blink of an eye, Iatsenia said.
The company bristles at comparisons of this to operating remote-control toy cars, calling it “parallel autonomy.”
On the ground in Berkeley, people also do a lot of robot support. Traveling at 1 to 1½ mph, the bots would take too long to chug to local restaurants, so Kiwi workers pick up the food at restaurants and take it via bikes or scooters to meeting spots around campus to insert into an insulated bag in the bots’ storage compartment.
That sounds labor-intensive but Iatsenia insists it pencils out. With robots’ help, each worker can handle 15 deliveries an hour, he said, far more than rivals such as Uber Eats. Within the limited confines of a college campus, however, those services might be just as efficient.
The average distance a robot covers for a delivery is about 200 meters (656 feet, or one-eighth of a mile) which makes them fall short of a “last-mile” solution.
Wendy Ju, a robotics expert and professor of information science at Cornell Tech in New York City, said human monitors, whether in person or remote, are still necessary for delivery robots doing real-world testing.
“Robot delivery is not a gimmick, but it’s not yet a viable and cost effective mechanism,” she said. “This kind of bootstrapping operation gets us closer to understanding what it will take to make robotic delivery viable and cost-effective.”
John Santagate, research director for commercial service robotics at IDC, a tech analysis firm, said he’s not bullish on the economics of robot deliveries outside of small areas such as college or corporate campuses.
“High-density markets where scale exists — big cities — are very hard to navigate as a person, let alone a robot,” he said. “I don’t think the technology today can overcome that.”
He’s also dubious about the value of people liking the delivery bots. “Just having a kitschy robot that students like to take picture of doesn’t necessarily mean it (will succeed) long term,” he said.
Kiwi charges a nominal fee for deliveries, but most of its revenue comes from restaurant commissions, a normal part of the food delivery industry. It also makes money through promotional partnerships with brands such as Red Bull, Soylent and Clif Bar. Its weekly revenues are in the five digits, it said.
That’s enough that it may make all deliveries free when the 2019-20 academic year starts, Chavez said, adding that its most loyal customers order multiple times a week.
Roland Saekow, 32, who works in operations at the UC Berkeley Maker Space, said he orders a sandwich and boba tea almost every lunchtime from Kiwi, paying $15 a month to cover unlimited deliveries.
“The cute face initially attracted me; I like how it shows emotion,” he said. As a roboticist himself — he competes on the TV show “BattleBots” — he appreciates what’s under the hood as well, not to mention the daily deals Kiwi offers.
“It’s a really good value, cool and convenient,” he said. “You don’t have to run out right away (as with a human courier), it’s happy to wait until you come. And you don’t have to tip.”
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