Built on Facts

Robots!

I can’t think of a way to relate this to physics, but it’s just too cool not to share. In New York City there is an artist named Kacie Kinzer. She created small cardboard robots that can do precisely one thing – roll forward continuously. Well, that and look cute.

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Attached to these robots is a flag saying “Help me!” and a description of these robots’ predicament. They’re trying to get to a particular destination but can’t, by virtue of the fact that they have no brains or steering. And they were successful:

Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

I don’t have a tremendous amount of faith in people, but it’s pretty heartwarming to know that people will stop to help a little lost cardboard robot.

There’s plenty of social science implications one could draw. Would they stop to help a lost homeless man? Or a lost child? Or a lost dog? Maybe. If I had to guess, the robots had such success because there’s no ambiguity. A lost person may react unpredictably or not want help in the first place. But with the robots there’s no question. Either you help or the poor thing will sit there and bang against an obstacle forever. Well, that and the fact that the darn things are so cute.

It’s a clever and charming experiment, and certainly one of the most interesting I’ve seen recently in the world of “unofficial” science.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris H.
    April 13, 2009

    Up in New York, I think thing would work, but down here in the South… Yeah, I’m not holding my breath. They’d probably freak out and shoot it or burn it or it’d get kidnapped.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    April 13, 2009

    The first time a robot mugs a New Yorker, “death to robots!” The same end can be acheived at much greater cost by legislation of a Good Samaritan robot law. Try the same experiment wherein touching the thing gives an electric shock or emits one of a selection of whoopie cushion sounds.

    “Vernal pools” (recurrent mud puddles) in California were declared fragile and endagered environments. A property owner suffering said microenvironements was subject to massive fines if they were “harmed”, plus trespass by “environmental monitoring.” Curiously, most such depressions disappeared (were bulldozed out of existence).

  3. #3 llewelly
    April 13, 2009

    ahhh… why bother programming the robots when you can program the people instead.

    (now all I need is a cute little cardboard robot with a sign that says ‘help me take over the world!’)

  4. #4 Janicot
    April 13, 2009

    I noticed she said ‘He’ll get there eventually’.

    Does that refer to a male being the one lost? The thought breaks down a little because the whole purpose was for the Tweenbot to indirectly ask for directions — something no male would do.

    I love the idea though. I’ve live my whole life in rural environments but I’ve already started thinking of variations that might be fun say on National Park trails (As long as the ‘bots don’t get abandoned and clutter up the Parks).

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