Tweenbots: Help a Lost Robot Find Its Way

Geek Culture

If you encountered a lost robot, would you help it find its way? Would you nudge it in the right direction, watch its progress or just look the other way? Kacie Kinzer tested this in Washington Square Park in New York City, as Mission 1 of several of the Tweenbots project. She describes the project best:

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.

Would people help this human-assisted robot get to the opposite corner of the park? Would they thwart its progress and send it in the wrong direction? It’s just so cute, I know that if I’d been there, and had the time, I would have followed it until it had been picked up, helping it when no one else did.

The video Kinzer shot shows many helpful people, and many that were merely curious. Most of those that helped the robot on its way were very gentle in doing so. They seemed to treat it as if it was a small live being.

In this first mission, people seemed to help the robot on his way with very little backtracking, and in a pretty direct route! People in New York are often in a hurry to get from one place to another, but this little robot seemed to pull them out of their personal missions to bring a human aspect to their walking commutes. This particular robot’s journey took 42 minutes with the help of 29 different people.

The Tweenbots are built to be disposable, Kinzer says. That way, if they wander into traffic, little investment is lost. But the results showed that people would help a stranded robot. Several robot missions have been carried out, and never has a robot been damaged or lost. If it was stuck somewhere, it would be freed. If it was heading the wrong direction, it would be turned around. Some human helpers have even spoken out loud to the robot, perhaps assuming it was a more sophisticated kind.

You can look at these robot missions in many ways. They can be real life programs, seeing how long and with how many wrong turns it takes a human-assisted robot to reach its destination. Or you can see it as a social experiment, one that can, and often does, show the helpfulness and goodness of people.

LosttweenbotLosttweenbotKinzer has also built robots that are merely lost, sitting in one place. They each have a phone number to call to let the robot’s family know where it is and that it is okay.

What would you do if you encountered a wandering robot? Would you be as motivated to help if the robot wasn’t a cute cardboard-bot with a smiley face? What if it was scary looking? What if it smelled bad? What if it emitted strange noises? What if it talked to you?

(Photos: Kacie Kinzer and Tweenbots)

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