Kiwi hires Colombian students to supervise KiwiBots

Maya Valluru/Staff

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When walking through Sproul Plaza, it is not uncommon to cross paths with a seemingly autonomous food-delivering KiwiBot — but a little-known fact is that someone actually monitors these robots remotely.

Kiwi, a tech startup based in Berkeley, employs students in Colombia to help the KiwiBots deliver food to certain parts of the city. While the KiwiBots are able to navigate sidewalks and avoid pedestrians, these students give the KiwiBots waypoints every five seconds on average, according to TechCrunch.

While the robot plans the actual motion, according to an email from Sasha Iatsenia, head of product at Kiwi, the supervisors are responsible for setting the path that the robots will follow. The robots take input from both the supervisors and its own sensors to move. This shared control between human and robot is referred to as parallel autonomy.

“As part of the transition to the 4th industrial revolution, Kiwi is building a hub of technology and opportunity for the young talent of third world countries,” Iatsenia said in an email. “We employ supervisors, many of which happen to be students, in Colombia.”

Established in 2017, Kiwi currently has headquarters in Colombia, Berkeley and other college campuses. Kiwi decided to establish one of their headquarters in Medellín, Colombia because the company’s founders are from Colombia, according to Iatsenia.

Kiwi pays these Colombian student employees the equivalent of about $2 an hour, according to Iatsenia. While this is over seven times smaller than Berkeley’s minimum wage, it is actually higher than Colombia’s minimum wage. For comparison, Iatsenia added, a meal at a Medellín restaurant would cost around $3.80, and an apartment in the city would be around $223.

According to a blog post by Jorge Andrés Vargas, product manager at Kiwi, the Colombian student employees can work remotely and choose their own hours — and the company provides free training in software engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Still, some people think student employees should be paid at Berkeley minimum wage, although they are working from Colombia.

“The $2 was … semi competitive … for where, like, they are but like then again it comes to the question of the technicalities,” ASUC Senator Nicole Anyanwu said. “They are technically operating over there, but the service is being delivered … in Berkeley.”

The ASUC introduced a bill Monday to condemn Kiwi for underpaying Colombian workers by Berkeley’s minimum wage standard. The bill is currently tabled, according to Anyanwu.

ASUC Senator Romario, primary sponsor of the bill, said Berkeley should hold companies to high standards because of its reputation for promoting class equality.

Iatsenia added that the future inevitably includes a relationship between people, robots and artificial intelligence.

“We need people more than ever in this age of technology, robots and artificial intelligence,” Iatsenia said. “A future where people aren’t needed is unrealistic.”

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.