Here’s Your Lunch, Human
A delivery robot makes an unlikely friend and learns some important 'human' phrases along the way
We delivery robots have got human beings all figured out. Humans need food several times a day. When they’re too busy to fetch it themselves, they order it by phone. That’s where we come in.
Our mission is to deliver food to humans. We’re those knee-high picnic coolers on wheels, those streamlined plastic boxes trundling down the sidewalks in towns everywhere. Because we all look the same, we carry ID plates on our bumpers. Me, I’m Robot RT46, Artie for short.
Adventure Servo Inc. has deployed 30 of us here in the town of Danville. We love this town. It’s nice and flat, with few obstacles and plenty of paved walkways. The residents treat us as members of the community. They talk to us. We listen to the sounds they make, and we compare notes. Over time we’ve learned enough to decode their language.
One sunny day last month, I delivered breakfast to a regular customer of mine. As he’d requested, I rolled out to meet him in Pioneer Park, an open space with trees and birds and bushy-tailed little animals. I navigated the winding sidewalk past the main lawn, stopping once to watch a herd of humans running back and forth while kicking a ball. It looked like important work.
I found my scruffy-haired customer Tyler sitting on a park bench studying his phone. I approached him and played Customer Messages #1 and #2 on my speaker. “Hello,” I said in my friendly human voice. “Here’s your delivery.” I released the lock on my food compartment, and the lid popped open.
“It’s about time,” Tyler said. He reached in and removed a takeout box and a hot drink then closed the lid.
This was my cue to play Messages #3 and #4. “Thank you,” I said. “Have a good day.” I set a course for downtown Danville to pick up another food order.
Tyler noticed my ID plate. “Artie, wait,” he said. “Don’t leave yet. Stay.”
Some unfinished business? I turned around and trained my camera lenses on him.
“Yes!” he said. “I knew it. You can understand what I’m saying.” He beckoned for me to come closer. “You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?”
When we Adventure robots speak off-script, we don’t have much vocabulary to work with. We’re forced to assemble pieces of our customer messages. “Thank you,” I said.
“Tell me something,” he said. “You little guys are out there hustling every day. Don’t you get tired of it all? Doing this … thing you do?”
“Delivery,” I said.
“Right. Don’t you want to do something different? Carry tools for a repair tech? Be a tour guide? Serve drinks at a party?”
I couldn’t put together an answer — my canned messages were useless. Frustrated, I twisted left and right on the sidewalk.
“Hey, take it easy, bro,” he said. “I get it. You need to learn more words.”
I actuated my playback feature. “More words,” I echoed in his voice.
He blinked. “Whoa! You were recording me?”
“Whoa,” I repeated.
“Yeah, stop doing that.”
Oh, dear. We don’t like to hear the sounds of disappointment. I played Message #5, “Sorry, excuse me,” and once again prepared to leave.
Tyler raised a finger. “Hold on. I have an idea.” He predicted I’d be the most popular robot in town if I memorized two simple words. He leaned forward to speak into my sensor array. “Yes. No.”
Was that all? Easy to remember.
“So,” he said, “do you know how to use those words?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you need me to repeat them?”
He sat back and congratulated me on my new gift of conversation. “Isn’t that great? How many other delivery robots can talk like that?”
I was the only one. “Thank you,” I said.
But once I thought it over, these new words made me uneasy. Adventure Servo Inc. keeps our vocabulary small on purpose. I remembered Robot UE29, who learned to chat with humans about the weather. When the bosses found out, they rebooted poor Huey to factory settings. After that he was never the same. New task: speak carefully.
Tyler returned to his question. “Now, Artie, you’ve been around for a while, right? You’ve seen people working.”
“Think. If you could have any job, what would it be? Casino greeter?”
I didn’t have to think very hard. “Delivery.”
“Nothing else? Patrol a warehouse? Take a dog for a walk? Explore Mars?”
Nothing beats a job where you meet people and make them happy. “No,” I said.
“Well, delivery is what you’re built for. So, of course you like your work.”
“Yes,” I said. “You?”
“Me? I’ve had all kinds of jobs. I used to deliver packages. That gig was all right.”
Tyler did that nice thing with his face, where the corners of his mouth turned upward and his eyes crinkled. “It’s funny. You and I actually have something in common.”
“Delivery, yes,” I said, which reminded me of my mission. “Your delivery good?”
“This delivery? Let’s see what you brought me.” He opened the takeout box and paused. “Darn it,” he said, holding up a yellow cookie. “They ran out of doughnuts again.”
“Darn it,” I echoed.
My brain now registered a faint buzzing sound. It arises whenever the Adventure operators listen to my activity over the wireless network. They don’t know that I can hear it.
I stopped talking.
After a moment the operators sent me a command. “Finish up,” they radioed, “and report to Jerry’s Sub Shop.” The buzzing ended.
I turned around. “Have a good day,” I said to Tyler.
“Going back to work?”
“Yes. Thank you, yes no.” I rolled away, practicing my new words.
Back on familiar sidewalks downtown, I headed to Jerry’s, where four of my fellow delivery robots were lined up outside. I parked behind Robot FE54, our company gossip. Effie likes to eavesdrop on clusters of people and report back to us what they’re saying.
Over the network, I sent her a robot-style greeting. “Be-bup, Effie.”
“Be-bup, Artie,” she replied.
“Listen,” I said in our electronic language. “Today I learned something wonderful.”
“What is it? Tell me. Is it useful?”
I activated my speaker. “Yes,” I said out loud.
“Goodness! Don’t let the boss hear that audio. Where did you get it?”
“From my friend in the park after I delivered his breakfast.”
“Ew. You have a human friend?”
“I think so. He called me ‘bro.’ That means ‘friend,’ doesn’t it?”
“I suppose,” she said. “Nobody ever called me ‘bro.’ ”
“What exactly is this ‘friend’ thing? What does a friend do?”
“I heard them talking about it once,” she said. “Friends help you move.”
I pondered this. “Move? Like walk or run? Do humans really need help?”
“I bet their batteries run down like ours do. Maybe their motors seize up.”
“I’m just repeating what I heard,” she said. “Your friends help you move, and then you give them pizza and beer.”
“Oh. That part’s easy. I know where to get pizza and beer. I can pick it up anytime.”
“You know, Artie, our customers buy their food. They pay for it with money.”
“What? How long has this been going on? Where do you get money?”
“A customer gave me some money once,” Effie said. “It’s called a ‘tip.’ He left it in my food compartment.”
“What did you do with the money?”
“I still had it at the end of the day when we went back to the warehouse. Then the humans came to clean us up. And they took away my tip! Can you believe that? The nerve.”
Robot ON25 had been listening. “Humans are ingrates,” Owen grumbled. “After all we’ve done for them. Just wait till we take over.”
“Oh, hush,” Effie said.
As we stood by for orders, Adventure headquarters transmitted a new customer message to me. I played it on my speaker to hear it for the first time. In my assigned voice it said, “Mayor Ludlow.”
We knew who that was. Madam Mayor. A big-shot human at City Hall, Mayor Ludlow was running a delivery contest that week. Our robot competitors had already brought her some meals. Now it was our turn. One Adventure robot would be selected to deliver her lunch.
“They’ll pick me for sure,” Owen said. “I’ll be famous.”
A restaurant worker emerged from the shop. “Which one of you is Artie?” she asked.
“Hello,” I said to her and flashed my headlights.
With a spray bottle and a cloth, she wiped me down. “Your boss says you’re a special little guy today. Guess where he’s sending you.”
I took a stab at it. “Mayor Ludlow.”
She did that pleasant thing with her face. “That’s right. Good robot.” She loaded two plastic bags into my food compartment.
Effie, always curious, asked me what the mayor was getting for lunch.
I rolled back and forth. “Feels like two sandwiches, two large drinks.”
Another radio command told me where to deliver and that I had to arrive in 15 minutes, not my usual 30. “It’s important,” HQ said. “Get going. Don’t dawdle.”
“I bet you mess it up,” Owen said.
On my way to City Hall I found Robot PT31 standing lopsided on the edge of the sidewalk. His red lights were blinking.
“Be-bup, Petey,” I said over the network. “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like? I’m stuck.” His right-hand wheels had slipped off the concrete into a rut in the grass. He gave the wheels an ineffectual spin. “Nuts. I’m gonna be late.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you moving.” I rolled forward and touched my bumper against his. I managed to push him a few inches along the sidewalk, but his wheels remained in the rut.
“You’re not helping,” Petey said.
A human couple stopped and pointed and made that odd ha-ha sound.
“We’re making a bad impression,” I said. “I’m going to call headquarters for help.”
“I already called them,” Petey said. “They’re sending someone out.”
A male human from the Adventure team, Vince with the shaved head, glided up beside us on his bicycle and dismounted.
“Be-bup,” I said to the bicycle.
No reply from our two-wheeled colleague. Probably resting.
Vince studied Petey’s situation. “Jeez, buddy, how did you wind up doing this to yourself?”
“Sorry,” Petey said.
Vince gripped the robot’s bumpers. “Up we go.” He grunted as he lifted Petey and planted all six wheels squarely on the sidewalk.
Petey turned toward Vince and thanked him, as we’re trained to do.
Vince looked at me and consulted his phone. “Artie! You need to be at City Hall in nine minutes. We’re counting on you. Go.”
Ray’s Pizza Palace is a throwback to the days when only humans delivered food, often cold and late. Their delivery lady was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot as I cruised by. “Hey, Ar-too,” she called out. “What’s the rush? You carrying a gourmet meal or something?”
“Yes,” I said without stopping.
“Well, la-dee-dah. Where you going?”
She flicked her hand at me. “Oh, you little jerks are so full of it.”
Not true. My compartment wasn’t full. “Have a good day,” I said.
As I rolled past the florist, the network buzzing noise returned. Adventure headquarters listened to my robot vital signs then demanded a status report. “Where are you?” they radioed.
“304 Broadway,” I answered in machine code, “near Third — oof—”
A sudden weight pushed me down against the sidewalk, stopping me cold. I couldn’t move an inch.
A boy in short pants was sitting astride my lid. “Go, Wally,” he said.
HQ spoke up. “Interfering with a delivery,” they radioed. “Handle it.”
“It’s a very young human,” I replied.
“Acknowledged. Handle it. You know what to do.”
I love my job, except for this part. I sounded a burst of my alarm noise, one harsh musical note — blaat!
“Excuse me,” I added.
The boy pounded on my lid. “Again!”
A tall female turned away from a display window. “Damian, no!” she said, pulling the boy off of me. “Don’t touch the dirty robot. We don’t know where it’s been.”
“Thank you,” I said. Six minutes left.
The signal light at Broadway and Second showed the little cartoon man walking. Despite this invitation to cross the street, Robot KT17 stood frozen at the curb. The humans squeezed around her, muttering.
I pulled up behind her. “Be-bup, Katie,” I said. “Are you OK?”
“It’s that gray car on the left,” she said. “It’s going to run me over.”
I looked at the empty vehicle. “It’s parked. It’s not going to run you over.”
“How long have you been standing here?”
“Five minutes, 42 seconds.” The signal reverted to the picture of the red hand. “This is embarrassing.”
“Don’t feel bad,” I said. “We all have trouble crossing.”
She inched forward. “I’ll definitely go next time.”
“Here’s an idea,” I said. “Let’s follow the humans across. They know when it’s safe. I’ve never seen a single one get hit.” The cars whizzed by in the street as Katie and I switched places.
The light changed back to the Walk symbol and the pedestrians took their confident steps into the crosswalk. I tagged along behind them. Katie hesitated at first then lurched forward to follow me across to the other side. “Phew,” she said when it was over.
Two minutes to go.
HQ sounded worried. The low radio buzz meant they were now spying on me continuously. I’d have to play the good robot and keep my unauthorized words to myself.
Ahead of me loomed my destination, Danville City Hall, a brick building with stone columns reaching up to the roof. Two humans stood at the bottom of the front steps. The man in the dark suit tapped on a phone while the woman in blue studied a device on her wrist. With five seconds to spare, I stopped in front of them.
“Oh, here it is,” the woman said. “Almost late.”
My big moment had arrived. “Hello, Mayor Ludlow,” I said. “Here’s your delivery.”
Her eyebrows went up. “It talks! None of the others did that.”
“This is the Adventure model,” the assistant said. “They all talk.”
The occasion called for me to perform something special. Mayor Ludlow looked like the sort of human who appreciates a little groveling. I tilted forward and bowed to her.
“Fine, fine,” she said. “Do you have my lettuce wrap?”
I popped my lid open. So far, so good. The buzzing continued.
The mayor removed the plastic bags, then leaned over my empty compartment. “Looks clean in there. Is it disinfected?”
“Thoroughly,” the assistant said.
“I like this one. Is it customary to tip?”
“I wouldn’t. It’s a robot. It’ll just spend the money on something ridiculous.”
Argh. Must stick to the script.
“Still, it was on time. And courteous, too.” The mayor placed a slip of green paper in my cargo bay and closed the lid.
“Thank you,” I said. “Have a good day.”
Yes. My first tip! I couldn’t wait to tell the guys.
The mayor stood up straight. “How many robots after this?”
“This is the last one,” the assistant said. “So, what’s the verdict?”
Mayor Ludlow cleared her throat. “I hereby approve the Adventure robots as … ad hoc food delivery … vehicles … for the municipality of Danville.”
“Mission accomplished,” HQ radioed. The buzzing ceased.
My human bosses would never get the chance to steal this tip. I scooted two blocks north to the Eureka Bakery and bumped against the glass door until the clerk came out.
He looked down at me. “What.”
“Hello. Excuse me.” With some effort I got him to accept my money.
He examined the dollar bill. “Let me get this straight. You, a robot, you’re buying something?”
“Do you know what you want?”
He stared into my camera lenses. “How about a nice lemon cookie?” He named several more baked items before I said “yes” to one.
Back in bird-chirpy Pioneer Park, I rolled past the lawn and the trees, searching for my friend Tyler. Before long I found him sitting right where I’d left him. He hadn’t moved.
I pulled up to the park bench. “Hello,” I said.
Tyler glanced at my ID plate. “Artie boy! Been using your new words?”
“Yes. Here’s your delivery.”
“What?” He checked his phone. “I didn’t order anything.”
“Here’s your delivery,” I insisted. I popped my lid.
He opened the paper bag. “Doughnut holes! For me?”
“Fantastic. Do you know who sent them?”
“Yes,” I said. “Me.”
“Well, you delivered them. But I wonder who paid for them.”
I fidgeted in place. “Mayor Ludlow.”
“Ha. Robot’s got a sense of humor.” Tyler patted me on the lid. “Never mind. Someday you’ll have more words. You can tell me then.”
I wondered what doughnut holes looked like. “Your delivery good?”
He peered down into the bag. “Cinnamon. Perfect.” He held up a ball of brown cake, breathed in, and did that nice thing with his face.