Robotic Trash Cans Encourage Social Interaction in Busy New York City Spot

When we think of New Yorkers, the stereotype of rudeness often comes to mind. However, a recent study by researchers at Cornell University has found that New Yorkers are actually quite engaging, helpful, and kind. The study involved two robotic trash cans placed in a busy spot in Greenwich Village, with the aim of studying people’s interactions with autonomous everyday objects.

The robots were constructed with a standard 32-gallon can on a hoverboard base containing a Raspberry Pi 4 mini-computer and a 360-degree camera on top. The design was not humanlike, and social interactions were based primarily on the robot’s functionality, rather than any humanizing appearances. On-site research assistants controlled the robots’ movements.

The results of the study were surprising. People welcomed the robots and were appreciative of their assistance. Some sought to “help” the robots by offering trash and moving obstacles from their path. Pedestrians even invested the robots with humanlike intentions, assuming, for instance, that wobbling motions were signals of appreciation, when in fact the motions were simply due to uneven pavement.

The robotic trash cans encouraged social interaction, and strangers even instigated conversations about the potential roles of robots. The appearance of a second robot led to a new dynamic, with people assuming the robots were aware of each other’s existence and perceiving competition between the cans.

However, not everyone was delighted with the robots. Some greeted the mobile garbage bins with trash talk, while one person even aggressively kicked the can over. Despite this, the study shows that humans and environmental endeavours such as mechanized wastebaskets can peacefully coexist.

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The study has important implications for the future of robotics in public spaces. By understanding how people interact with autonomous everyday objects, we can better understand the range of behaviours and norms that robots will need to manage autonomously in longer-term deployments. The findings of the study suggest that robots can be designed to encourage social interaction and cooperation, rather than simply performing functional tasks.

In conclusion, the study by Cornell University researchers shows that New Yorkers are friendlier than expected and are willing to engage with robots in public spaces. While there may be some who are hesitant or even hostile, the majority of people welcomed the robots and appreciated their assistance. This research has important implications for the future of robotics and highlights the potential for robots to encourage social interaction and cooperation in public spaces.

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