White, about the size of a medium dog, and constantly zooming around during hours of operation. These food delivery service robots (known colloquially as Zot Bots) are the sometimes-loved, sometimes-hated unofficial mascots of the UCI campus.
In 2020, Starship Technologies sent 15 robots to the university’s campus with the goal of “offering people convenient new services that improve everyday life.” These AI-driven robots use data and technology to master the art of food delivery.
But the convenience and ease of these bots are up for debate.
Most orders from Starship’s service take around an hour to deliver. When comparing order times for coffee between Zot Bots and Doordash, the latter, human-run delivery service is much faster. Doordash can get you a lukewarm Peet’s coffee in anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. Zot Bots, however, will take about 50 minutes to get you a cup of Einstein Bro’s coffee.
Most of the delay is in the Zot Bot’s trek to the delivery location. Human workers quickly prepare items for delivery, but the bot’s journey itself can be a long one—especially for students ordering deliveries to on or off-campus housing.
Zot Bots are often spotted waiting for long periods of time at the 4-way stop of California Avenue’s crosswalk, headed to Arroyo Vista. When it does mount up the bravery to cross the street, cars have been known to haphazardly cut the robots off midway. This restarts their zen-like waiting process all over again, but now with the Zot Bot stranded in the middle of the street.
Fourth-year art student Sabella Hunter has witnessed friends helping the bots cross the street. “Last year two of my friends literally carried two Zot Bots across the street to help them out,” Hunter said. She added that the bots are very heavy, and lifting the robot was a “two-man job.”
The unrivaled benefit of Zot Bots is their tamper-safe nature. You can rest assured that your food is safe from human interference once locked in the bot’s chamber, which will only unlock for the user who ordered the food.
Whereas human-run delivery services run the chance that your Mcdonald’s may arrive missing some fries, Zot Bots don’t have interest in you or your food.
However, the smooth, non-threatening appearance of a Zot Bot isn’t appreciated by every UCI student. In just two years, these automated food couriers have managed to garner a substantial hate following.
It’s not uncommon to have one of these bad boys come zipping at your ankles at top speed, only to stop just short as they hit you and make a clumsy re-direct. (It’s nothing personal, the Zot Bots have been known to bump into each other.)
Sometimes the bots line up on campus ominously, as if preparing for battle. Other times, they seem far less capable when struck in a pothole. At night, their headlights are like glowing eyes charging straight at you in the dark. Depending on your mindset, this could be a troubling or uplifting sight to behold.
An independently-run confession Instagram account known as @ucimissedconnections is a frequent outlet for students to lament about Zot Bots.
In one Nov. 12 post, an anonymous complainant said that: “Zotbots making November extra hard.” An earlier post on Oct. 19 said: “We should all bully the robots more, they’re starting to get too bold.”
It seems that war with AI may feel just around the corner for students who already have finals to worry about.
Most won’t vent their frustrations publicly, except one fourth-year English student, Sakura Yi, who finds the bots to be an annoyance. The Zot Bots tend to crowd walkways during busy hours, idle in inconvenient places, and often come zooming right at her.
“I feel like they’re personally targeting me,” Yi explained. “I’ll walk out of their way and they’ll still turn in my direction.”
We reached out to Starship Enterprises for comment via email about the reason for bot clumsiness, but we have yet to receive a response.
To retaliate, UCI students created a long-running joke to bully Zot Bots by standing in their way and obstructing the delivery process.
The diligent robot simply wants to complete its one objective: deliver lukewarm substance. Yet, daily, their jobs are being interrupted.
It is common to walk UCI’s campus and catch students purposely stepping in the Zot Bot’s path. The young adults, who should probably get to class, will jostle an inanimate object around until they get bored and leave it alone to finish its only job.
Hunter has witnessed first-hand how some students verbally abuse the bots. “Sometimes I see [students] calling them stupid and saying ‘Ay! Watch where you’re going,’” Hunter explained. But Zot Bots can neither watch where they’re going very well nor respond to the harassment.
Bullying an inanimate object is a puzzling social phenomenon.
According to the online mental health platform Better Help, people may bully to alleviate feelings of powerlessness, stress and to exercise a form of control. Of course, students could be seeking revenge for lightly bruised ankles.
However, not all students hate the Zot Bots. In fact, many love them.
One fan of Zot Bots, a third-year French and Psychological Sciences student, Oluchi Chukwunweike, loves the little guys. She has seen first-hand how other students will help Zot Bots in peril. “One good memory I have of a Zot Bot was seeing one get caught on a curb and a student helping it up. I thought that was wholesome,” Oluchi said.
She has ordered from the Starship delivery service and enjoyed the experience.“You get to choose which song plays [when the food arrives] and I think that’s a cool feature,” Oluchi explained. “I think it’s an experience everyone should have at least once.”
One Instagram account known as @zotbot.th0ts posts some of UCI students’ favorite Zot Bot interactions and memes of the bots. During the UAW Union Strike that began on Nov. 14, one Zot Bot showed its support by carrying a picket sign.
Students have been known to pat the bots on their smooth heads, or “dap them up” after a job well done.
Regardless of students’ feelings about Zot Bots, they will likely remain on UCI’s campus for years to come.
Asia Boyd is a Campus News Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.