The robots are coming – and they’re bringing groceries. But these aren’t Amazon drones zooming through the air. Instead, cute Starship Technologies robots are more down to earth. Trundling around the streets of Leeds, the little robots deliver shopping from local Co-ops, using their sensors, AI and machine learning to navigate. They even wait patiently at zebra crossings.
I’m all for this. Some people love shopping. I don’t – especially grocery shopping. There are few day-to-day tasks I prefer doing less than traipsing around a supermarket. But these robots offer other benefits too. For example, they aid people who lack mobility, and they can be a sustainable means to deliver groceries. (The average power consumption of a delivery is reportedly similar to boiling a kettle.)
That all makes robots ideal for top-ups that wouldn’t be time-efficient for an individual nor fuel-efficient for a car. You’d also avoid the unease of an Amazon Fresh driver giving you ‘a look’ on handing over a single cucumber you’d had urgently shipped to your home.
How does it work? I’m not in a test area, but research suggests the process is roughly as follows:
- Download the app and order some groceries
- Schedule a delivery and drop a pin to define the delivery point
- Wait for staff to load your goodies – and then the robot to arrive
- Hope the robot doesn’t get destroyed by a careless driver or stolen by pranksters and used as a futuristic toboggan
- Use a code to access your stuff when the robot rocks up, then send it on its way
- Realise the eggs you ordered are missing
- Be simultaneously amazed at the progress of technology, while mildly disappointed these robots aren’t equipped with lasers to zap the person who forgot your eggs
There’s even an element of personalisation. Not in the sense the robot will say: “Hey, Craig. You do realise the Co-op is half a mile from your house? And that my AI knows you’re perfectly capable of hauling yourself there, if you can be bothered?” That might be a welcome reality check, but it would be considered poor customer service.
Instead, you can have the robot play a song when it arrives. Although one tester realised it wasn’t a smart idea to choose Wham and inflict Last Christmas on surly neighbours on a cold winter’s night. Perhaps a certain Kraftwerk classic would have been more apt, with its lyrics: ‘I am your servant/I am your worker’. And then the robot, while sadly trundling away, could use surplus AI power to mull over its lot in life and whether humans like me should just get their own groceries and leave robots to do robot things, like watch robot cat videos on YouTube.
That robot won’t nearly be alone, either. Because it turns out I was unaware Leeds is just the latest trial. It turns out, there are already loads of these robots trundling around. Perhaps they are taking over by stealth. Let’s hope someone doesn’t equip them with lasers, then – or we’ll be in a fight for our lives in a terrifying mash-up of Terminator and WALL·E.