Artist Kacie Kinzer of the Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program wanted to find out if typical New York pedestrians would help a little lost robot. So she built some little robots designed to need human intervention to reach their goal. She called these little robots Tweenbots. A Tweenbot, while autonomous, can travel only in a straight line. It has a small flag that displays its intended destination. Would people help it, ignore it, or worse?
The results were unexpected. 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.”
In some cases, the robot's goal was quite far away, such as getting from the northeast corner Washington State Park to the southwest corner, a trip which took the robot 42 minutes and the intervention of 29 people to complete. The artist suggests this result tells us about people's "willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, of being lost, and of having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone". Kacie is working on new Tweenbots with new missions in the coming weeks. Props to LowImagination for bringing this story to our attention and for noting that while the Tweenbot seems simple it may have worthwhile implications for those studying human robot interaction.