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Robots Just Want to be Loved

You are face to face with a robot on a narrow sidewalk. You are in the city of San Francisco. You stop. You stare. Two LED eyes stare back. It’s a game of digital chicken. Are you facing off against R2-D2 or a T-1000 from the Terminator?

Okay, it’s really not that dramatic. The robot is named Serve, and it is a shopping cart-shaped invention that delivers food and packages across town. Serve is the creation of a San Francisco design consultancy called NewDealDesign and its founder Gadi Amit, who developed several generations of the Fitbit, one of the world’s most popular fitness technology devices.

The standoff, however, illustrates one of the key challenges for designers working on robotics and artificial intelligence: “Interactions between humans is natural to us. Interactions between humans and robots is not,” Amit told attendees of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Tuesday.

In fact, when San Franciscans first encountered Serves, they were afraid enough to complain to local government, which in turn ordered Amit to take his robots off the streets.

Amit and his team had solved the considerably challenging problems of enabling Serve to judge and respond to traffic flow, estimate its load capacity versus distance to travel, and navigate the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

Despite those technical accomplishments, he then faced a more fundamental challenge shared by others engaged in artificial intelligence. He needed to design Serves so that humans would accept their presence. “The streets belong the people, not robots,’’ Amit said.

One approach was to alter the robot’s appearance. Serve was redesigned, changing its sterile austere look to one resembling Wall-e, the animated robot and children’s toy. “We wanted to create something that is lovable at first sight,’’ Amit said.

His team also decorated the Serves in warm bright colors, added the LED eyes (which are actually cameras), and added a screen on top as another way to communicate messages to the people it encounters.

Another set of LED lights lets pedestrians and vehicles know when Serve is about to move. The helped solved confusion and avoid possible accidents.

NewDealDesign is still developing other modes of communication Serve can employ to interact with humans. Amit thinks that his creation is actually over-communicating at the moment—but that is a necessary stage so that designers can gain more insights into how robots can achieve acceptance.

“We and robots are learning about each other,’’ Amit said, adding that learning is part of the design process. “We keep many ideas alive for a long time so we can get this moment when serendipity happens. And that is the magic of a good design process.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.