A hot, white flash of light glows in the distance, approaching along the sidewalk with a smaller, orange pennant blinking above it. The black screen gleams as a white mass closes in. Then the hum of motors, the eventual abrupt stop and rebound reveal the unidentified object — a Starship Technologies food delivery robot. What do these innovations hold for the future?
These autonomous robots debuted at Purdue this semester, but they seem to have swiftly integrated into the campus culture and Boilermakers have been taking note of the buzz around them.
“(The robots) have a really positive response on campus,” said Sean Rodriguez, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts who runs a YouTube channel under the name Sean Andrew.
In a video titled, “ROBOTS ARE TAKING OVER MY CAMPUS,” he interviewed students on campus about the robots. Most students knew about the robots but few had used them. Everyone agreed they looked cute.
In the video, Rodriguez, who had not used the Starship robots before, ordered quesadillas from La Salsa using the Starship app.
“Are robots going to take over the world? Not those robots,” he concluded.
John Bennick, a senior in the Krannert School of Management, is a student supervisor at 3rd Street Market. He said that the workplace culture has not significantly changed since the market introduced the robots because they do not account for a large amount of orders.
“I think robots will be a lot more prominent,” he said. “To what extent? Nobody knows. But we’ll find out in the next 10 or 20 years.”
When the restaurant’s robot delivery interface broke on Nov. 26, making it impossible to read delivery orders, workers were more skeptical.
“I’m not too impressed,” Mary Jane Hoover, an employee at La Salsa, said. “I had to hire an extra staff robot runner for (the Starship food delivery service). I don’t see how it’s a convenience. ... It’s not that convenient for businesses, but it is convenient for the customer.”
She said the robots do not drive indoors, so employees have to go outside of the building to place orders inside the robots.
Mauricio Vela, a junior in the Krannert School of Management and La Salsa employee, said when there are few workers, operations become hectic.
“(The robots) kind of disbalance everything because you need to send somebody to get the food to (it),” he said.
He explained that the lack of direct communication through the Starship app makes it difficult to convey if a menu item has run out because the restaurant must notify Starship, which then notifies the customer.
Katie Lucas, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, is a barista at the Starbucks on Third Street, which delivers using the robots. Like the La Salsa workers, she said things can get hectic when it’s busy at the store and delivery orders come in, but she said she believes that the robots are beneficial for workers.
“I think that they’ll make jobs easier,” she said. “They provide more jobs because now we need more people to help manage these robots.”
But jobs are not the only concern with advancements in automation like the delivery robots.
Lindsay Weinberg, postdoctoral fellow in Innovative Studies with the Honors College and Polytechnic Institute at Purdue, said she thought compared to job-loss concerns, there’s less attention on the way innovations restructure work.
“It’s not so much jobs are lost, per se, but that you have this huge bureaucratization that happens and then suddenly people are so far removed from their caseworkers, they could be talking to someone halfway across the country,” she said, using the example of automation in public services. “They’re not able to relate and effectively get somebody the help they need, even though automation is supposed to make things more efficient.”
But Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development at Starship Technologies, said the separation between the customer and the restaurant via the app is a strength because the customer does not have to manage giving their contact information to various services or decide on a tip. He said while problems sometimes occur, Starship Technologies has people dedicated to fixing technological hiccups.
The company has two main missions with its robots: reducing carbon emissions and “giving back the gift of time” by making it more convenient for busy people to get food.
Weinberg said when the impacts of innovations are not critically considered, unintended social consequences may result.
She said those who are not able-bodied may encounter difficulties sharing the sidewalk with robots. For example, The Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper, reported the University paused Starship robot testing on campus after a student in a wheelchair was impeded by a robot.
But Tuohy said the incident at Pittsburgh was a learning experience for the company. He said the company has committed to proactive teaching about the robots weeks before they are introduced to campuses in the future.
Weinberg also said food-delivery innovations may not be accessible to those who cannot afford the delivery fee, so they may not benefit students suffering from food insecurity. Several students interviewed by The Exponent said they did not consider paying the $1.99 fee worth it.
Responding to these concerns, Tuohy said the robot delivery service is not meant to be a primary food source. He said since Starship robots are “making software do the work,” they can cheapen delivery fees compared to competitors like DoorDash and Grubhub.
Several workers and students said they were not worried about privacy loss due to the robots. But Weinberg, who teaches a class on privacy, said the robots could raise privacy concerns. To a passerby, the information the robot collects is not obvious.
Most of the time, the robots do not collect identifying information like face data. But Tuohy said if someone tries to tamper with them, they will take pictures.
“The robot will protect itself,” he said. “Tell your friends not to mess with the robot.”
Tuohy also said the company, founded in Estonia, holds privacy as a core value since Europe is more privacy-conscientious compared to the United States.
Despite encountering some difficulties, the La Salsa employees concurred that the robots, which Hoover affectionately named Huey, Dewey and Louie, look cute.
Hoover said that while she does not believe the current Starship robots will replace delivery workers, future innovations might. She referenced movies like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ which feature sci-fi technologies.
“I do worry about that with technologies — taking away human positions,” she said. “People need jobs.”