Trash Robots in the City

Researchers from Cornell developed an experiment to find out how people interact with robots.

Why does it matter?

Researchers figure that they can program robots — but human beings are less predictable. In order to implement robots in normal work settings, they have to know what the human beings are likely to do when they encounter a robot.

This becomes even more important as AI causes robot makers to allow their machines some agency or at least the appearance of free will. If robots are to learn how to respond to new situations, their builders will have to have some idea of what kind of new situations they might encounter.

New York City

The researchers from Cornell tried out their experiment in a. public place in New York City. The robots were just ordinary trash cans on remote-controlled hoverboards. The people controlling the trash cans hid so the human subjects could imagine that the machines were autonomous robot trash cans.

Going against the common stereotypes about New Yorkers, the people their trash robots met were generally friendly and helpful. It might even be the case that the human subjects treated the robots with more respect and kindness than they would have if the robots had been operated by humans. For example, when the robots had difficulty picking up a piece of trash, people were more likely to help them out than if a human had been operating the machine.

This tactic of presenting robots as autonomous agents was also effective in getting people to interact with the robots in a more relaxed and open manner. When the robots made mistakes, people were more likely to forgive them than if a human had made the same mistake. This was particularly true when it came to the robots’ mistakes in interacting with people, such as not being able to understand commands or requests.

Fear of robots

The experiment suggests that people may be learning to be less fearful of robots and to feel more friendly toward them. If so, that’s a good sign for future development of cobots.

The latest speculations suggest that most of us will find about 10% of our work tasks taken over by automation in the next decade. Perhaps we can relate to the robots as helpers rather than as threats.

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