How Robots Bring Out the Best in People

When I spoke with social robotics pioneer Cynthia Breazeal of the MIT Media Lab earlier this summer, she said that one of the things she loves most about robots is the way they bring out our humanity. People let their guards down around robots; they can’t resist engaging with the machines.

Tweenbots, a project by the technologist and artist Kacie Kinzer, is a superb demonstration of that principle. Kinzer’s Tweenbots are simple cardboard robots that are able to move forward, but cannot turn on their own, and are easily tripped up by obstacles and uneven surfaces. She set the Tweenbots in New York’s Washington Square Park, with little flags stating each bot’s destination. New Yorkers are famed for their ability to stare straight ahead despite all sorts of wackiness occurring in their peripheral vision, but the sight of the struggling Tweenbots encouraged them to stop, offer a little shove in the right direction, and smile to one another.

On the blog of the Center for Advanced Hindsight (great name, right? I want that T-shirt), Kinzer writes,

Every time a Tweenbot got stuck in a pothole or started to grind futilely against a curb, someone would come to its rescue. Strangers, who seconds before would have no reason to talk to one another, came together to help. People talked to the Tweenbots, and asked for directions on the Tweenbot’s behalf when they did not know which direction to aim it. Of all the amazing interactions, my favorite was when one man turned a Tweenbot back in the direction it had just come, saying out loud to it “you can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

It seems that we can’t help but anthropomorphize robots (at least when they’re presented to us as hominoids—enormous factory robot arms don’t inspire empathy in me, though maybe you feel differently). Breazeal told me that in an experiment into using robots as weight-loss coaches, people named, dressed up, and spoke to their machines. Kinzer hypothesizes that people were struck by the sight of the tiny robot struggling in the enormous city, evoking empathy and concern.  How connected is this anthropomorphization to the current novelty of robots? If automatons wander the street in large numbers, will we still stop to help them?

Read more on the Center for Advanced Hindsight’s blog. Hat tip to Robin Smith.