Tech & Startups

Part of the family: how humans and robots have learned to get along

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Human-robot interaction is the focus for the company right now, and Markus Zimmermann, our head of interaction design specialises in interaction design within the app, ensuring the touch points between users and the service are optimised. He is also responsible for any human-robot interaction along the robots’ entire journey from the merchant to the customer.

“Starship is an on-demand delivery service bringing customers and merchants together.”  

Markus Zimmermann – Head of Interaction Design

The robots themselves come into physical contact with many people along their journey, including packers and warehouse staff, the wider public in the form of pedestrians and drivers, and the customer, and maybe their acquaintances and neighbours. Interactions which are vitally important, but easy to overlook, happen within the relationship the robot has with Starship staff in Tallinn or Washington along its journey. 

The interactions of a robot during a journey 

The first object a robot sees is actually another robot delivering them a new battery, but the first time a robot meets a human is usually a technician making sure cameras and sensors are clean and clear, along with the serving pod should it be a food carrying model.  

Hypervisors monitor the market conditions to understand how many robots might be needed on a given day, due to external influences such as the weather or a particular event in the locality. In the future, this may be possible through data monitoring and connectivity to various information networks, but today it’s an operator that communicates with the robot, and field assistants who look after the robot’s welfare along the way. 

An order kicks in and the robot is ready to move into action, typically sat outside the merchant waiting. In Milton Keynes in the UK, our robots wait outside a branch of the Co-op grocery store surrounded by pickers and packers, interested parties and customers going about their shopping. On the way from Co-op to the customer these robots will have millions of human interactions.  

Integrating with a community 

When anyone moves to a new place there is a process that must be followed to facilitate assimilation. As laborious and unnecessary as it might seem, it is essential for the relevant steps to be taken, like a rite of passage with no stage skipped. These stages are vital for acceptance into the community, for trust to be built and for routines to be established for all parties. For our delivery robots, the same rules apply. 

In Monkston, Milton Keynes, we are observing a community rallying around the robots, and in the US, students have started fan pages for the robots. The need to humanise the robot comes through from our community feedback, parents reporting the affinity they and their children feel with what was once a source of novelty and exhibitionism, now a valued and cherished part of their community: they love us, they know us.  

After one week of running the service we had established a wall of fame in Monkston, filled with positive messages from the community about the robots, expressing their gratitude for having them available, the fact their kids love them and how they feel part of the family for many who live with the robots day-to-day. Children love to write feedback messages to the robots, or draw pictures of them. 

“If it could talk, it would be cuddled to death!”  

From a parent in Monkston

Markus Zimmermann explains that with this positive reception comes great responsibility: “People perceive the robots no matter what, they have expectations for the robots. They have to be polite safe and smart, as well as a little goofy and fun – and we shouldn’t disappoint. We must make sure they don’t just project attributes, but behavioural traits.”  

It seems the robots are having a positive and profound effect on those around them, and as those around them are either current or potential customers, this is fantastic news. Most people notice them, 1-5% depending on where they drive, to be precise. “People try out if they can make it talk, they see if they can get a reaction; most often people are communicative, playful and curious,” says Zimmermann. He goes on to explain that most of these encounters come with some form of interaction, whether it be talking to the robot, saying ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’, or maybe a selfie taken and posted on social media.  

“Cool” “Futuristic” “Fantastic” “Exciting!”  

Trending words used to describe these robots on social media.

An experiment carried out in the field, where robots were tipped on purpose drew comments such as, ‘leave the robot alone’, or ‘hey, it’s not yours to do that with’. These were passers-by looking out for the robot, and the experiment showed that more people were likely to assist the robot if it asked for help in a human voice, rather than with an alarm sound or with no sound at all. On many occasions, random people have stepped in to set the robot back on track, including after a rare negative interaction. 

The delicate balance between human and robot 

To anthropomorphise a robot has a sliding scale of acceptability with the broader public, studies show that there is a fine balance in fact.  Our robots are pretty cute, they have a pet-like quality and clearly attract fondness. However, had they been more humanised, research shows that people would most likely become wary and more distant.  

Rather than give the robot a face, we find that people will, in fact, find a face. It so happens that human traits are often attributed to mechanical objects, and established psychological thought supports the theory that babies are programmed to find facial features, a trait which we don’t completely grow out of – something we can take advantage of for the sake of finding the balance. 

The use of non-verbal signals to humanise the robot – or more importantly, to help it communicate with humans – is an essential part of this delicate balance. “Humans have one very progressive channel, we communicate by emotional visuals cues,” explains Zimmermann, “if there are two glasses on the table, you will know which I intend to reach for by my gaze, or my actions.” 

The delivery robots use this technique in a few simple ways, for example at zebra crossings, they move back a touch to signal that they are safely waiting; it’s a powerful signal to pedestrians, and especially important as a responsible example to children. Our robots need to be seen as law-abiding, polite and courteous members of society, just like any one of us should be.  

As integrated, socialised and responsible members of society, our robots can concentrate on their primary task, to deliver items on-demand in real time, quickly, safely and with that added bit of magic. 

Who benefits from an on-demand delivery service? 

Families with kids, self-employed people and those who have fallen ill for a period are the biggest users of the service in the UK, in the US due to the location at present it is students – who often get food delivered directly to their lectures!  

However, the constant here is that wherever a customer is based, they expect the delivery to be prompt and reliable. We aim and deliver on our timeframe of 50-minute deliveries for prepared food and groceries, and 30 minutes for hot foods such as burgers and curries, for example.

In association with Starship Technologies, Estonia