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Humans (Mostly) Love Trash Robots

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A woman helps the trash barrel robot over a bump.

The researchers found that "people were more likely to think that the robot was computer controlled if they observed it getting stuck, bumping into obstacles, or ignoring people’s attempts to draw its attention."

Credit: Cornell

My favorite approach to human-robot interaction is minimalism. I've met a lot of robots, and some of the ones that have most effectively captured my heart are those that express themselves through their fundamental simplicity and purity of purpose. What's great about simple, purpose-driven robots is that they encourage humans to project needs and wants and personality onto them, letting us do a lot of the human-robot-interaction (HRI) heavy lifting.

In terms of simple, purpose-driven robots, you can't do much better than a robotic trash barrel (or bin or can or what have you). And in a paper presented at HRI 2023 this week, researchers from Cornell explored what happened when random strangers interacted with a pair of autonomous trash barrels in NYC, with intermittently delightful results.

What's especially cool about this, is how much HRI takes place around these robots that have essentially no explicit HRI features, since they're literally just trash barrels on wheels. They don't even have googly eyes! However, as the video notes, they're controlled remotely by humans, so a lot of the movement-based expression they demonstrate likely comes from a human source—whether or not that's intentional. These remote-controlled robots move much differently than an autonomous robot would. Folks who know how autonomous mobile robots work, expect such machines to perform slow, deliberate motions along smooth trajectories. But as an earlier paper on trash barrel robots describes, most people expect the opposite.

From IEEE Spectrum
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