13 April 2009


Kacie Kinzer has performed a fascinating experiment with robots which depend on the kindness of strangers.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability, the vastness of city space, the dangers posed by traffic, suspicion of terrorism, and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination.


The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

Robots, like people, benefit from being cute.

Update: Hitchbot, a hitchhiking robot, has not been so lucky.

The researchers who built hitchBOT announced today that they need to stop the experiment because hitchBOT was vandalized in Philadelphia.


Erik said...

"Robots, like people, benefit from being cute."

My thought exactly! I imagine the experiment would have gone a different way if the robots had looked like Adult Swim icons.

Kate said...

The kindness of strangers may not be unusual for cute robots but it certainly is not the norm for people in dire straits. At least not that I have seen, especially in large cities. I am one of many people (but not all) who go out of their way to give assistance or answer questions posed by strangers. Large city or small, I am a chatter. To date I have not gone unrewarded for these efforts. Personal satisfaction, of course, being the reward.

Clarisse Thorn said...

They're too cute ... I don't trust 'em.