Covid-19 Has Made People More Tolerant of Robots

The pandemic has caused a shift in how people view — and use — delivery robots

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Covid-19 entails all kinds of tradeoffs, challenges, and moral decisions. What’s the best balance between re-opening economies versus safeguarding vulnerable populations? Which jobs are considered essential, and which are not? Should I wear a mask (yes, you should)?

One big moral quandary some have faced has been the decision about whether to order takeout food from restaurants, using services like Doordash. On the one hand, ordering from local restaurants is a way to support small businesses in your community. But on the other hand, there are concerns that placing a food order puts the delivery person at risk. They need to go into a restaurant, drive around to deliver your order — maybe even risk arrest if there is a curfew in your city.

But what if your delivery “person” wasn’t a person at all, but a robot?

Delivery robots were already gaining traction before Covid-19, and had been used in communities like Berkeley and Mountain View, California to deliver food to college students and techie office workers. But they were more a novelty than a consistent, visible option for consumers.

According to a new analysis by Danish robot company Meili, though, all that has changed — and fast.

In the post-Covid world, people have become much more tolerant of robot workers, including robotic delivery workers. According to the analysis, “nearly three quarters (73%) of the respondents would choose to order online if the package was delivered by a robot rather than by a human.” They’re also more tolerant of robots sharing their physical spaces — a third of respondents in a survey by Interactions LLC said they would be comfortable with seeing robots in grocery stores.

Why the shift? According to Liu Zhiyong, CEO of ZhenRobotics, “The epidemic made people aware of the fragility of human beings.” Human delivery workers potentially put their health at risk with every delivery they complete. In the early days of the pandemic, I heard about this firsthand when an Uber driver reached out and said they had stopped driving and lost all their revenue as a result of Covid-19. They were simply too scared of contracting the virus to continue driving for a rideshare company.

According to Meili’s report, the new public faith in robot delivery workers will have a major impact on the industry, leading to an additional €500 million in growth between now and 2023, beyond the growth the industry expected pre-pandemic. This benefits companies like Meili, of course, which provides software to manage robot fleets.

At the moment, delivery robots are often one-shot, custom made devices which are relatively expensive to develop and produce. Going forward, expect them to be commoditized, with a smaller number of companies making standardized delivery robots for everyone, and companies like Meili supply the software to make them function. This is what’s already happened in the micromobility scooter industry, where basically every company uses the same hardware from a small number of vendors, like Segway.

This centralization and consolidation actually drives growth and innovation. It allows new players to enter the market faster, without having to reinvent the wheel and build their own robot platform from scratch. It also allows new companies to focus on being logistics providers and building customer interactions, instead of having to be robotics/hardware startups.

There’s a risk to delivery workers, too, of course. As much as deliveries can put them at risk, they also provide a vital source of revenue. The good news is that most delivery robots still require some degree of human supervision. This could potentially create lower-risk jobs for delivery workers who are displaced from their normal activities by Covid-19.

Delivery robots were already on the rise pre-Covid. With the virus casting doubt on the moral and practical aspects of food delivery, expect delivery robots to step in and take over for more and more humans.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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