business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Washington Post this morning has a story about how George Mason University in Virginia has received “a fleet of 25 delivery robots that can haul up to 20 pounds each as they roll across campus at four miles per hour,” providing on-demand food delivery.

An app developed by Starship Technologies, which created the robots, “allows George Mason students to order food from places such as Blaze Pizza, Starbucks and Dunkin,’ as well as a grocery store, though the list of options is supposed to increase in the coming weeks, according to organizers. Once an order has been placed, users drop a pin where they want their delivery to be sent. The robot’s progress can be monitored using an interactive map. Once the machine arrives, users receive an alert, allowing them to unlock the robot using the app.”

It is part of a slow but steadily evolving robotics revolution, the Post writes: “Robots delivering food are becoming more common on college campuses. This month, students at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., began ordering snacks and beverages for the first time from a bright-colored roving robot on wheels known as the Snackbot. At the University of California at Berkeley, a food delivery company called Kiwi launched its robots on campus last year.”

The development of robotics to serve customers in this way won’t be without potholes, but it strikes me as inevitable that it will continue to expand in terms of availability and acceptance. And it raises a larger question about what these students will expect from stores and technology once they leave college and move into the real world? I think they’ll want similar offerings to be available to them at their homes and workplaces, and it will be incumbent on retailers and technology companies to provide them.

It is inevitable, and the whole thing is an Eye-Opener.

Ironically, columnist John Kelly at the Washington Post the other day who wrote about his dismay that his Giant Food Store is not getting the robots being rolled out to some of its stores by Ahold Delhaize. Kelly, however, has a very specific task in mind for these robots - he wants them to enforce the rules of the store’s Scan It lanes, which allow for people to self-checkout after having used a handheld device to scan items as they shop the store.

Kelly is tired of doing everything right and then getting on the special Scan It line and finding out that they person in front of him wants to pay cash, even though the system is very clear that Scan It lanes don’t accept cash. The system is great … it is the people who screw things up. “If Jurassic Park taught us anything,” he writes, “it’s that in any complex system, humans are the weak link.” (Extra credit for the movie reference.)

What Kelly wants is this: A robot stationed at the Scan It lane, equipped with a laser beam, ready to enforce the rules.

Which is one way to go, if a little too Terminator for my tastes…
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