Prior to this pandemic, the big ethical questions surrounding food robotics and automation was their impact on loss of human jobs. But as COVID-19 has forced us to social distance and rethink our regular activities, replacing humans with robots for food delivery seems like a more ethical choice. Robots, after all, don’t need face masks, can be placed in frontline situations and won’t accidentally cough on your groceries.
As it’s done with many other aspects of the meal journey, the coronavirus is accelerating the adoption of certain types of food tech — like robots — that otherwise would have come to market on a much longer timeline.
The Detroit News posted a story yesterday about the increased demand for Refraction’s delivery robots in Michigan. Refraction makes the rugged, three-wheeled, self-driving REV-1 delivery bot. It’s bigger than Starship’s cooler-sized robots, yet not as big as Nuro’s self-driving pod vehicles.
At the end of last year, Refraction kicked off a beta program to deliver takeout meals from four different Ann Arbor restaurants. The Detroit News reports that Refraction now has more than 400 restaurant partners and the company’s fleet of five robots is running at capacity. Refraction is also working to get into grocery delivery.
The robots are cleaned between deliveries, and Refraction has added UV lights to the interior of the robot to further sanitize the cargo compartment. The robot is also contactless as consumers use their phone to unlock and open the robot to retrieve their food.
Refraction’s robots also, obviously, reduce human-to-human contact for people receiving food while sheltering in place. Our country may regain a certain amount of freedom to move in the coming months, but we’ve had a pretty healthy fear of other people pumped into us for the past couple of months. Robots may be more welcome once we’re past this.
These robotic advantages could also be applied beyond restaurant delivery and into restaurants themselves. The Korea Times reports that this week Woowa Bros. announced it would offer free rentals of its “Dilly” server robot to 50 restaurants in Korea for two months starting in mid-April.
The Dilly is an autonomous robot with a series of racks meant to work the front of house, delivering food from the kitchen to tables and bringing empty plates back.
Woowa Bros. launched the Dilly server program back in November and charged roughly $773 a month (with a two-year contract) for the robot. The Korea Times writes that 164 restaurants applied for the program, and currently Woowa has 23 robots operating in 16 restaurants across Korea.
It’s entirely likely that we’ll see more server robots in restaurants here in the U.S. as well. Though coronavirus has permanently shuttered at least 3 percent of restaurants across the nation, there’s already talk of what restaurants will look like when dine-in rooms re-open. Expect fewer people, disposable menus, and possibly servers wearing masks.
One has to wonder what people will prefer interacting with: a server wearing a mask or a robot? To be fair, a lot more of us will probably be wearing masks in public in the near future, but the cold, sterility of a robot may be more appealing to nervous people just starting to come out from sheltering in place.
Refraction and Woowa aren’t the only examples of robots gaining more popularity. Starship recently expanded the use of its food delivery robots beyond college campuses and onto city streets in Arizona and around Washington DC. And Nuro just got the greenlight to test its autonomous delivery vehicles on public streets in California.
But it’s not just the consumer end of the robotic equation that we should be thinking about. While robots may help reduce human-to-human contact when accepting your food, they also relieve some of the new dangers of being a delivery person. Let’s face it, delivery people have worked hard during this outbreak and have often gotten the short end of the gig economy stick. Ideally the food industry can use any savings from automation to help fund new job opportunities for humans.
The ethical questions surrounding the availability of human jobs in an increasingly automated world will remain and need to be addressed in a thoughtful manner after this virus recedes. But in the shorter term, robots may help reduce transmission of a deadly virus and perhaps ease a little bit of anxiety around getting our food delivered.