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HomeTechnology & ScienceNew Yorkers treat these remote-controlled 'robot' garbage bins like people, say researchers

New Yorkers treat these remote-controlled ‘robot’ garbage bins like people, say researchers


As It Happens6:35New Yorkers treat these remote-controlled ‘robot’ garbage bins like people, say researchers

A waste bin and a recycling bin, both perched on top of robotic wheeled disks, roll between tables in Brooklyn’s Albee Square.

They’ve helped make throwing away trash more convenient for passersby — but the robo-bins are also part of an experiment studying how humans interact with them.

The bots belong to a team of research students from Cornell University. Members of the team operate the robots remotely — usually from somewhere nearby in the square — and monitor their interactions with help from a camera that’s fixed to each bin.

“For the most part, people seem excited to see them,” Wendy Lu, associate professor and PhD supervisor for this study at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, told As it Happens guest host Aarti Pole. “They understand right away that they’re there to do a task.”

Fiona Carroll, a program director with the Cardiff School of Technologies who was not involved in this study, told the CBC in an email that the “novelty factor” of seeing the motorized bins “could attract initial attention and interest from people, potentially leading to increased engagement in [litter reduction] efforts.”

A pair of robotic bins wheel through a public downtown space. Researchers are using them to study how humans interact with robots. (Submitted by Frank Bu)

A surprising number of people were seen speaking to the bin-bots, said Lu. Others waved at the bin, motioning it to come closer so they can toss garbage in.

Some called the garbage and recycle bin pair “buddies,” or congratulated them for what appeared to be their co-operation, as though assuming that the two know each other in some way.

“It’s actually a big assumption to make, that the two robots would know anything about one another, and we thought that was very interesting,” Lu said.

These assumptions likely stem from the human urge to anthropomorphize objects, according to Moojan Ghafurian, co-director of the University of Waterloo’s Social and Intelligent Robotics Lab.

“Many people name their robot vacuums and interpret behaviours from their cleaning patterns. In this case, the robot approaching people and its specific movements can be one reason why we may assign human-like behaviours to it,” Ghafurian, who was not involved in this study, told CBC in an email.

A man sitting at a table outdoors throws trash into a garbage bin with wheels.
A man in Brooklyn’s Albee Square puts trash into one of the Cornell Tech team’s robotic bins. (Submitted by Frank Bu)

While Lu says most people have interacted kindly with the robots, she recalled some violent instances that stood out. A few people pushed the bot with their feet and “harassed” it, she said, and another man kicked the can over completely. 

Neither the research students or Lu were sure why the bots had prompted these angry responses. But they did find a possible explanation in a social media video of one of the bins, with the caption: “Mayor Eric Adams doing the most he can with the NYC sanitation budget.”

“It’s entirely possible that some of that aggression or concern about the cameras on the robots might have to do with people’s feelings about the New York City government,” said Lu.

In a 2019 story in the New York Times, one researcher suggested that humans abuse robots for the same reasons we might hurt other people who are not part of our own “in group.” 

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More bots like these bins-on-wheels are probably on their way, too. For the next five to 10 years, day-to-day objects with slightly enhanced capabilities, like a Roomba, will be the robots we interact with most, according to Lu. 

“[This poses] interesting questions — how [will] people interact with things if we can’t assume that they’re going to follow human interaction conventions?” she said.


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