November 17, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
The human side of AI: Delivery robots in Milton Keynes
This post has been written in collaboration with Alan Miguel Valdez, Lecturer in Technology and Innovation Management, The Open University, Milton Keynes
At the beginning of November 2023, an international AI Safety Summit took place at Bletchley Park, the iconic location of World War II code breaking feats. What has perhaps not been stressed enough, unless you live there, is that Bletchley Park is located in Milton Keynes. Now, Milton Keynes is also famous for its network of straight streets and, we should not forget, its pavement robots that use these streets to deliver groceries.
Letting the hype about hyper-advanced AI and its potential dangers wash over us, we decided to look instead at the not so hyper-advanced AIs embodied in the delivery robots. We wanted to find out how they are perceived by journalists and citizens of Milton Keynes when they speak to the press. It should be said however, that Miguel Valdez, co-author of this post, can actually see the robots and has done some ethnographic research about them in their urban environment, sometimes called a ‘smart city’.
In the following, we shall report on what we gleaned from a quick and rather superficial analysis of newspapers. We searched the news database Nexis with the search terms ‘Starship AND “Milton Keynes” AND robot’ and downloaded articles from the top ten newspapers (in terms of how many articles they had published). This gave us a small corpus of around 100 articles: 41 articles for the Milton Keynes Citizen, 12 for the Daily Telegraph, 11 for the Mail Online, 9 for The Independent, 6 for The Guardian, 6 for The Times, 5 for The Sun, 4 for the Daily Mirror, 4 for The Sunday Times, and 3 for the Financial Times.
One thing struck us. The depictions of and reactions to these robots were quite unlike the supposed reactions to ‘frontier’ AI or ‘generative’ AI, reactions that might be provoked, for example, by this uncanny ‘generatively enhanced’ robot built by Boston Dynamics (but more research is needed here). Before we get to these reactions, some background.
Robots arrive in Milton Keynes
In April 2018, Starship Technologies launched its AI enabled, autonomous delivery robots in Milton Keynes to automate on-demand grocery deliveries, in partnership with the Co-op and Tesco. At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, in March 2020, Starship became the first robot delivery service to operate in a British town centre with the rollout of its service in Central Milton Keynes.
Initially promoted to help reduce carbon emissions, the robots were now praised for reducing the transmission of the coronavirus. At a time of lockdowns and social distancing, robots capable of delivering groceries while preventing face-to-face contact were especially valued by those who were immunocompromised, self-isolating or otherwise housebound. As Miguel Valdez and Matthew Cook have pointed out: “Robots became part of a multi-layered response to a crisis and after the pandemic they remained as a widespread and even mundane infrastructure”.
How did people react to these new machines? Overall, they (especially children) reacted positively to these machines – from what we can see in our small corpus of newspaper articles and based on Miguel’s observations.
There were isolated incidents where people or dogs felt attacked by the robots, but these were rare. Only one newspaper in our corpus, The Independent, highlighted the contrast between the use of these shiny robots by affluent consumers at a time when Milton Keynes was struggling with a crisis of homelessness. That was in 2018. This crisis seems to have been overcome now.
One way of seeing how favourably the robots were generally perceived is to look what they were called. We found many relatively technical labels for them, but there were also some that implied real affection, an affection that was of course built into the machines, so to speak, by those who configured and modified them, including enhancing their appeal for special occasions.
Names, nick-names and terms of endearment
The machines were called ‘robots’, ‘bots’, ‘droids’, or ‘pods’, even, technically speaking, ‘drones’; or, more precisely, ‘delivery robots’, ‘courier robots’, ‘sidewalk delivery robots’; ‘ground drones’, ‘ground-based drones’; ‘autonomous machines’ or ‘autonomous vehicles’; or ‘semi-autonomous delivery robots’, ‘automated home delivery service’ etc. Sometimes, more informally, they were called ‘robot buggies’ or ‘deliver-bots’. In more sci-fi inspired writing, they were referred to as ‘futuristic autopods’, ‘space shuttle-esque autopods’ and, of course, ‘Starship Troopers’.
Given what they look like and how they move (we come to that in a minute), they were more affectionately called ‘mini-fridges on wheels’, ‘cooler boxes on six wheels’ or ‘remote-controlled cooler boxes on six wheels’ (this is more prevalent in the US where they have also been deployed).
This makes the robots homely and brings them down to earth, severing all association with dystopian images of killer robots. A Guardian article from April 2018 quotes Starship co-founcer Janus Friis as saying “most of the response from the public has been positive, contrasting Starship’s offering – squat, wheeled robots rolling along the pavements and co-existing with pedestrians – with ‘dystopian’ efforts from companies such as Amazon and Google to introduce flying delivery drones.”
Affectionate labels are important in embedding these relatively alien machines in their human environment. This seems to have succeeded, as, after a while, people called the robots ‘six wheeled residents’ and ‘unusual participants’ (in a Santa Dash). They became increasingly humanised and, in a way, honorary citizens of Milton Keynes.
Engineers fostered this integration by giving the robots particular make-overs on special occasions. At Christmas, the robots would be fitted out with reindeer antlers; at Halloween they would be disguised as pumpkins; they even were chosen, on rare occasions, to be ‘best bot’ at a marriage!
All this was no accident, of course. Starship Technologies would send out messages, such as “As Halloween approaches, we have some terrifying news: PumpkinBots have been unleashed again in Milton Keynes!” Or “If you spot PumpkinBot roaming the streets, snap a pic and share your sighting in our Facebook group”. And so on.
Adjectives and attributes
These generally bumbling and loveable bots also attracted labels for their qualities in the form of adjectives and adjectival phrases. They would rarely be called ‘slow moving’ or ‘purely functional’. More often, they were referred to as ‘small’, ‘little’, ‘tiny’, ‘squat’, ‘knee-high’, ‘pavement hugging’, etc., that is, emphasising their unthreatening height and size.
Such descriptions still stay within the range of what one may call objective. Others are more subjective and the plastic or metal little boxes become human bodies, become embodied. They were said to be ‘shy/not shy’, ‘patient’, ‘friendly’, ‘cute’, and, importantly, ‘comical’, but also ‘caring’, ‘clever’ and ‘hard-working’. They were also designated as ‘novel’, ‘marvellous’, ‘famous’ and ‘revolutionary’.
In this way, they combine technological innovation and usefulness with lovability through their apparent bumbliness.
Actions and reactions
The likability of the robots comes through not only in the use of adjectives when people/journalists describe them, but also in the use of verbs, such ‘scoot’, ‘scuttle’, and especially ‘trundle’ (along, through the snow etc.), verbs that are much less threatening than the sometimes used ‘roam’. On rare occasions they are said to ‘whizz about’.
More often, they are praised because they are said to ‘quietly make their way’, to ‘form an orderly queue’ (so English!), to be ‘very well-mannered’ and ‘say thank you’ in some situations. “When the robot says ‘thank you’, my little one says ‘thank you’ back. He thinks it’s amazing” (Mail Online, May 2018); “it’s like Father Christmas has come” (Sunday Times, January, 2021).
The robots can sing, dance and speak, actions that make them even more human-like and human-likable. To top it all, they participate in morally good community actions: “They delivered free to NHS workers and even joined in the Thursday night tributes to the NHS, blinking their headlights instead of clapping”. (Milton Keynes Citizen, August 2020) One robot even delivered a marriage proposal and did a “triumphant wheelie” (Milton Keynes Citizen, January 2021). So, they don’t only speak; they do speech acts…
Given their perceived good and moral behaviour, it is not surprising that when something happens to these robots, people feel for them and try to help them. The bots might topple over, get stuck – in flood water, face-down in the river or in snow. These events are not perceived as the machines malfunctioning but as them being ‘in distress’ – an emotional state that provokes an emotional response, such as sympathy and willingness to help.
One person said: “It made me feel surprisingly emotional to see the photo of the robot on its back with its little wheels up in the air”. (Milton Keynes Citizen, September 2020) Another (human) resident of Milton Keynes exclaimed “Oh no! Poor baby.” (Milton Keynes Citizen, September 2020).
As the bots’ behaviour is seen as human behaviour, it triggers human reactions and this integrates them in human society. One person said: “They’re like the little people that live here.” (Sunday Times, January, 2021)
Environment, embodiment and social interactions
All the talk about risks and frontier AIs in Bletchley Park is about disembodied intelligences, discussed in abstract, invisible brains making decisions about our everyday lives. Not far from there, in Milton Keynes, a more positive image of AIs is built up through everyday encounters which depend on place and body.
This is possible because we are not dealing with a super-duper computer secured in a data centre, or a robot bolted to the floor of a factory. We are dealing with unexpected encounters when turning the corner on a bike path. As the algorithms adjust the path of the robot to avoid an incoming pedestrian or wait for a gap in traffic, one cannot help but read or project human emotions into a most inexpressive fridge on wheels.
It should be stressedd however that just as positive social interaction is only possible in certain contexts, situations and environments, so positive social interaction between humans and robots is only possible in certain environments. Such environments must be configured in certain ways and must be flexible and adaptable to accommodate such interactions.
Not every town can be Milton Keynes – a city built as part of the new town movement in the 60s, whose low density and garden city approach resulted in a widespread network of footpaths where robots and humans have enough room to coexist. As Valdez and Cook have pointed out: “the layout of MK [Milton Keynes] allows humans and robots to share public spaces without getting in each other’s way and may even allow room for encounters where humans anthropomorphise robots and have generally positive affective responses toward them”. In the right environments, robots are learning to live with humans and navigate our world, just as we learn to live with them.
They are gradually being introduced to more complex urban environments and can now be seen in the streets of Northampton, Bedford, Cambridge and Leeds (or at least in the most suburban areas of them). Perhaps, over time, robots will be clever enough to navigate denser city centres – although for now, their bumbliness, which is endearing in the suburbs, would probably make them aggravating if encountered in Oxford Street in London or King’s parade in Cambridge.
The Milton Keynes robots are not human and they are not superhuman. They are engineered to be just human enough (including fallibility) for humans to want to interact with them in human ways without feeling threatened.
Image: Photo of Starship robot in Milton Keynes, Credit: Miguel Valdez, OU
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