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The invisible labor of keeping delivery robots rolling

As delivery robots increasingly take to the streets of cities across the UK, a new study reveals the often overlooked "human work" that allows these AI-powered machines to navigate seamlessly. Researchers found that people constantly make subtle adjustments to their behavior and movements to accommodate the robots, essentially "granting passage" through the urban landscape. It is this invisible labor by residents that allows delivery bots to operate smoothly, underscoring the nuanced relationship between humans and robots in public spaces.



The study, published in the Proceedings of the 2024 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, was conducted by researchers from the University of Nottingham, Linköping University in Sweden, and the University of York. They analyzed real-world interactions between pedestrians and delivery robots being piloted in the UK cities of Milton Keynes and Northampton.

By closely following and filming the robots over several days, the researchers witnessed a staggering number of minor acts by people to facilitate the bots' travels. From pedestrians moving aside to let them pass, to workers momentarily pausing their tasks, to people tapping or gesturing at the robots when they slowed - these almost unconscious accommodations constituted an invisible workforce actively modifying their behavior.

"The robot became an obstacle itself, with people constantly making subtle, seemingly insignificant modifications in behavior to allow the robot to continue on its way," explained Dr. Stuart Reeves from Nottingham's School of Computer Science. "Examples include people moving aside to let it pass, a window cleaner pausing his work to allow it to pass and tapping it with his foot to encourage it to move when it slowed or adjusting walking pace to stay behind a robot."

Reeves and his co-authors argue that when deploying delivery robots, urban planners and tech companies often put the robot at the center, designing spaces and routes optimized for the machine's capabilities and mapping. However, their research emphasizes that public adoption relies just as much on the reverse - people accommodating the robots through minor actions and social protocols.

"For a robot to successfully navigate a route, it relies on the accommodation of people for it to be successful and not become an obstacle itself," Reeves said. "Understanding the unique characteristics of public spaces in which robots are being deployed is essential."

The paper, which was awarded Best Paper at the HRI conference, highlights the need for robot designers to account for this critical "human work" that enables their technology. As Reeves stated, "We hope this research can be used by councils and robot designers to help shape the way robot technology and public spaces they use are designed as these technologies evolve and are scaled up."

Delivery robots may be powered by artificial intelligence, but their ability to perform last-mile logistics relies just as much on human intelligence, conscientious, and willingness to share spaces originally designed just for people. As cities embrace automated deliveries, planners must recognize this symbiotic relationship and design robot routes that harmonize with the natural flow of human navigation and behavior.

The successful integration of delivery bots hinges on understanding and accommodating both the capabilities of robots and humans alike. This latest study spotlights the invisible labor performed by the very people these robots are intended to serve. Only by bringing this human work into focus can we design robotics systems that seamlessly co-exist with the public, leveraging our unique ability to perceive Context and adapt fluidly in shared spaces.

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