Are the Kiwibots out for blood?
The Kiwibot team says no, but some students — including those who have had run-ins with the robots on campus — feel differently.
On April 26, Leah Timpson ’22 was walking past Upper Usdan when she felt a sharp, jabbing pain on her heel. A Kiwibot — one of a fleet of at least 15 food delivery robots brought to Brandeis by Sodexo — had driven into her foot from behind her. “I was wearing flats, so when it hit my foot it pulled my shoe down,” Timpson told the Justice on April 30. “I kept walking, and I got to the SCC and looked at my foot and it was bleeding a little bit. My foot was red, and I have a bruise now.”
Kiwibots are semi-autonomous and are able to navigate through a system of camera-related path planning, object detection, and, in certain situations, remote control by human supervisors, many of whom operate out of Kiwibot’s Colombian office in Medellín.
“The robots are able to detect traffic lights, people, vehicles, or even other Kiwibots; based on that, they make decisions in the path planning and the obstacle avoidance process,” reads a statement on Brandeis’ Kiwibot FAQ page. “Among the things that they take into account are the structure features, the roads, the estimated trajectories, and where the dynamic or static objects are located.”
While there is no reported record of serious injury resulting from the Kiwibots, Timpson’s story is not unique, with other students reporting similar incidents. Rachel Landis ’23, who describes herself as “pro-Kiwibot,” had a nearly identical, although not as bloody, experience as Timpson. While walking by the library, Landis attempted to move to the side of the sidewalk to make way for a line of Kiwibots behind her when she felt a sharp poke on her heel. “And there it was, a Kiwibot making an angry face at me!” Landis told the Justice in a May 1 text correspondence. “I was like, ‘I moved over to avoid this happening!’”
Evan Israel ’24 also described an instance where she moved to make way for a Kiwibot but was still bumped. “I was standing on the left, and the Kiwibot was next to me … the Kiwibot was driving at an angle, so it kind of pushed us off the sidewalk,” she said in an April 29 text correspondence with the Justice.
On one mid-March day, Hailey Osborne ’23 decided to test the robots’ “high-tech sensors” and “obstacle avoidance process” touted on the Brandeis Kiwibot FAQ page. She intentionally stepped in front of a Kiwibot as it made its way down the main path through campus. “I wanted to see if it would stop,” Osborne told the Justice on April 29. The Kiwibot proceeded to plow into Osborne’s legs, nearly flipping itself over in the process. “It ran over my feet!” she said.
While Osborne’s experience wasn’t necessarily the Kiwibot’s fault, the encounter — along with Timpson’s, Israel’s, and Landis’s — calls into question the FAQ page’s statement that the bots are “capable of performing an incredible driving function under different outdoor or indoor conditions.” And with the robots coming in at an estimated 22 inches tall and 45 pounds, getting hit by a Kiwibot doesn’t exactly feel like a tickle.
“As humans, we need to be careful,” said John Betancourt, the head of AI and robotics at Kiwibot, in a May 2 Zoom interview with the Justice. “If you step in front of the robot suddenly, there is a high probability that the robot will not stop in time. Like every system in the world, it can fail.”
@Brandeis_kiwibot_conspiracy, a semi-ironic, mostly-satirical Instagram account that first started posting in late March, feels strongly that the Kiwibots have no place on Brandeis’ campus. “The kiwibots are cute… too cute. They must be up to something,” reads part of the account’s bio. Most of their content consists of student-submitted footage of Kiwibots moving in militaristic lines, glowing ominously, and generally acting odd.
“The Kiwibots are absolutely out for blood,” an anonymous representative of the account told the Justice in a May 2 Instagram correspondence, employing the dramatic and satirical tone of the account’s posts. “Once we learned their true purpose, we felt the need to collect all the evidence we could and share it with any potential victims.”
While it’s not clear what the owners of this account believes this “true purpose” to be, Sodexo appears confident that the Kiwibots were a great addition to the Brandeis campus. “This campus [Brandeis] was the right fit … We are the first university in New England that has Kiwibots," Sodexo resident district manager Mike Reilly said in an article on WickedLocal.com.
“I feel like the campus is divided,” said Timpson. “Half the students say the Kiwibots are the perfect height for kicking, and the other half are like ‘Don’t kick them! They’re babies!’”
Betancourt stressed that students are encouraged to report any instances of Kiwibot issues and said that the team has only received word of one negative incident on Brandeis campus since the bots made their first appearance. “Our on-site team is always willing to help, you can always reach out to them,” Betancourt said, referring to the vested Kiwibot team members that can be seen outside of upper Usdan. “This helps us to look into things.”
Overall, students’ feelings towards the Kiwibots seem to range from alarm to affection to suspicion. “They’re Out To Get Us,” reads the first line of @Brandeis_kiwibot_conspiracy’s bio in bold font. However, even some students who have been hit by a Kiwibot are still fans of the emotive robots. Landis, for example, remains cheered by the Kiwibots’ presence despite her recent run-in with a member of the fleet. “I love the Kiwibots,” she said. “I think they’re adorable.”
Kiwibot-related questions, comments and concerns can be directed to the team at email@example.com, or by calling 831-292-5135.