“We liken it to the invention of the washing machine”: A Q&A with the creator of Geoffrey, Toronto’s adorable new delivery robot

“We liken it to the invention of the washing machine”: A Q&A with the creator of Geoffrey, Toronto’s adorable new delivery robot

Tiny Mile’s Ignacio Tartavull with Geoffrey, Toronto’s cutest courier

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If you live in the downtown core you may have noticed a tiny pink robot zipping around. Geoffrey—a battery powered, bubble-gum coloured vehicle the size of a milk crate—is the creation of Toronto’s Tiny Mile robotics and, according to founder Ingacio Tartavull, a window into the not-so-distant future of home delivery. Plans to launch this first-of-its-kind tech wonder were already underway before Covid hit. Now, the case for driverless delivery is stronger (and cuter) than ever before.

I have a lot of questions about this ridiculously adorable robot, but first, why the name Geoffrey?

The robot is named after Geoffrey Hinton, who is the godfather of AI and a professor at the University of Toronto. He was always at the Mars building, so I told him what we were doing and I asked if we could use his name. He’s a man of few words but he said it was fine, and I think he was pleased.

And why pink?

Pink is my favourite colour. And we were trying to build something that people find cute, not threatening. If you look at the design of Geoffrey, it resembles a baby: big head, big eyes, rounded body. We believe this invention has the potential to better our society by making food delivery more affordable and more environmentally friendly. And it could be a real time-saver for people who spend a lot of their day running errands—we liken it to the invention of the washing machine. People are often hesitant of change, though—but maybe less so if the change in question is pink and cute.

Geoffrey’s a hit with the younger crowd

What kind of reactions does Geoffrey get on the street?

People are fascinated. When I took him out for the first test run, we went by a restaurant and everyone pulled out their phones to take pictures. There was a dad with his toddler who followed Geoffrey for 10 blocks, playing with it every time it stopped. I probably get one email a week from a parent who wants to buy Geoffrey for their kid.

What do you tell them?

Ha! That’s a whole different project to take on. Maybe I’ll get into toys in the future.

What can you tell us about Geoffrey’s origin story?

Geoffrey started as a fun side project. I built the first version in my living room—it was pretty ugly back then. I moved to the United States from Argentina in 2014 to work as a data infrastructure developer at Princeton, and then I came to Toronto in 2018 to work in the Advanced Technologies Group at Uber. I was working on self-driving cars, which was very exciting but also very complicated. We’ve been developing driverless cars for the last 30 years—and I don’t think we will be using them in the near future—but you can use similar technology to build things that will be available a lot sooner, so that’s what got me thinking. The goal is to create something that makes delivery more eco-friendly and more affordable to consumers and to merchants, so that everyone wins.

Everyone except maybe food couriers?

I actually think there’s a misconception there. Geoffrey is equipped with five cameras, but the robot is not self-driving. We employ drivers who operate the robots using the same kind of joystick you would see on a PlayStation or Xbox. The interface is similar to a video game, so it’s more fun, more efficient—drivers can go back and forth between deliveries during wait time—and safer to operate.

Obviously Covid is a tragedy, but has the demand for contact-free delivery been good for business?

We’re still in pilot project stages, but certainly the need for and the advantages of contactless delivery are highlighted by the pandemic. So is the mission of our company: we want to make delivery affordable for everyone. It shouldn’t just be a small percentage of the population who can afford to save time by ordering delivery. On the other hand, it’s not easy to build a robotics company when we don’t have access to all of the products and equipment that we need, so there have been pandemic-related disadvantages for us, too.

In March, Tiny Mile announced a partnership with the delivery app Foodora, but then in in April, Foodora announced it was pulling out of Canada. Where does that leave Geoffrey?

The Foodora partnership was exciting, but we’re moving forward. Right now we’re working with individual restaurants including Bombay Palace, Mexicados and Animal Liberation Kitchen. These are all businesses that are close to our office, so we’re able to get instant feedback. We’re also talking with another major food delivery company about a long-term partnership, so hopefully we’ll have some good news to share later this fall. At the moment, our biggest challenge is less about demand and more about addressing the technological challenges.

Geoffrey, on the job

Such as?

There are so many. Making the road reliable, making the robot more resilient. We’ve made a lot of progress. It used to break down every 10 kilometres or so, and now it does so every 100 kilometres. We’d like to get that number up to 1,000. Wheels break, the vibration can be disrupting and then the robot is not yet winterized. Our biggest challenge at the moment is finding more engineers to bring on board.

Could Geoffrey deliver more than just food?

Definitely. We’ve been focused on food because that’s where we see the most demand, but we’ve also worked with a flower company. The potential is endless: you want a t-shirt, a book or medicine at 3 a.m.? I think in a few years it will sound absurd that people used to drive in cars to deliver food. Robots like Geoffrey will be commonplace.

This is starting to sound a wee bit dystopian…

The idea is not to replace traditional businesses. If you look at restaurants, there are two reasons that people go: the first is to socialize and enjoy a delicious meal, and then the second is strictly to get food. So it’s that second group of clientele that can be helped by this invention.

Hard at work

How many Geoffries are currently on the road?

There are currently two robots running, but the plan is to keep adding about a robot a week. In 10 months we hope to have 40 robots.

Do you call them Geoffrey 1, Geoffrey 2?

Almost. Internally we call them G1, G2 and so on.

Do you have affection for them?

It’s funny, I do. We actually pet them after a good day’s work.