The Robot Lost in the Woods Was Designed for You to Love It

The Starship company has done what Boston Dynamics and others haven’t: designed a robot that’s met with joy instead of fear.
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Last week, a robot wandered into the woods of Northampton, Britain and became a social media sensation. 

History professor Matthew McCormack was riding his bike through the woods on May 15 when he spotted the little robot and took a picture of it. “I thought it was kind of funny and out of place and a bit quirky, so I finally caught up with it and took a picture,” McCormack told Motherboard.

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The image of a robot was met with near-universal love and affection. It reminded us all of Wall-E. It was a robot the way we like our robots: small, innocuous, and innocent. It didn’t trundle about taking the temperatures of homeless people like the Boston Dynamics robot dog or scream in agony while trying to train dentists.

The robot was adorable, but it was also a robot doing a job. The robot is a delivery drone made by the company Starship that ferries groceries around town. “This lucky robot managed to have an adventure taking the scenic route through the woods of Northampton on its way to the customer,” Reid Zura, social media specialist at Starship, told Motherboard. “The delivery was completed but we’re fairly certain the recipient didn’t know their order would gain so much attention!”

According to McCormack, the Starship robots are ubiquitous in his town. “We have them all over Northampton,” he said. “I think they kind of took off during the pandemic, when a lot of people were getting home deliveries. And you often see them around town on pavements and stuff. But it seemed a bit Star Wars to see this thing going through the woods.”

McCormack said that not many people use the delivery bots but that they’ve become part of daily life in town. “They’re quite visible,” he said. “They get a strong reaction from people. Kids love them because they’re kind of cute. And they’ve really anthropomorphized them…they’ve gone to great effort to humanize these things and I think that helps people have a positive engagement with them.”

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That is, in fact, by design. “Starship robots were designed to be approachable because we are building a service for humans, to make their life a little bit easier,” Zura said. “This means social acceptance of our robots is very important, people must feel comfortable around them because they see them every day in their community. We have been blown away by the amount of people that think our robots are cute.”

Robots are having a hard time gaining public approval, particularly in America. Some companies want the bleak future we’re building to be full of robots. Amazon wants drones that fill the skies with deliveries. The NYPD sent a robot dog into a Bronx apartment in 2021 to investigate a home invasion and was met with condemnation. In 2015, an adorable hitchhiking robot was decapitated in Philadelphia. Dalek-like security robots have been vandalized and attacked.

People had strong negative reactions to many of these robots. They represent the outsourcing and dehumanization of unpleasant tasks. It’s an attempt to make a machine do dirty jobs humans feel bad about. In most cases, the public has revolted against such machines. People can smell the con.

Starship, however, won people over. “Starship robots are often treated similar to a school mascot or puppies—they are a popular selfie, people want to pat them or see them and fans have created social media pages for them,” Zura said. “We get ‘love letters’ all of the time from customers who share drawings or tell us how much the robots mean to them. We’ve also had many college students tell us that they place orders just so they can see the Starship robots because it makes them happy.”

For robots, the line between adoration and hatred is thin. Starship avoids the pitfalls of the robot dog and various other security droids. It’s small, carries a large flag that lets people easily see it coming, and—critically—it needs human help to do its job.

“People seem to be kindly disposed towards these things,” McCormack said. “They go along sidewalks and there are a lot of curbs and drains that they get caught in and people help them out. They seem to think it’s a little animal or something that they need to rescue.”

Robots can be frightening for many reasons. One of the biggest is the fear that they will, eventually, replace us. Every Starship robot means a human isn’t delivering groceries. A perfected self driving car technology would upended trucking and transportation careers.

For now, though, the Starship robot is proof that these machines still need us. They get stuck on curbs and have to be helped up. And, sometimes, they get a little lost in the woods.