Tweenbots: social robots that need New Yorkers' help to reach their destinations

I love this social robotics experiment from a student at NYU's ITP: Tweenbots are are simple robots bearing a flag with their destinations. Random humans they encounter in the street have to pick them up and aim them in the right direction. As Schneier noted, it's a testament to the level-headedness of New Yorkers that none of them got all Bostonian on the cute little bots and called out the bomb squad.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability, the vastness of city space, the dangers posed by traffic, suspicion of terrorism, and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination. Because I built them with minimal technology, I had no way of tracking the Tweenbot's progress, and so I set out on the first test with a video camera hidden in my purse. I placed the Tweenbot down on the sidewalk, and walked far enough away that I would not be observed as the Tweenbot--a smiling 10-inch tall cardboard missionary--bumped along towards his inevitable fate.

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."

Robot/People art by Kacie Kinzer at ITP (via Wonderland)


  1. I’m interested in what the little guy’s flag said exactly. If it gave any hint that he was part of a project or simply stated where he needed to go.

    My cynicism (not just at NYCers) leaves me surprised that some punk kids didn’t bash the poor little dude.

  2. It certainly is adorable with it’s nice smiley face and cheerful “Help Me!” on the flag.

    I wonder if the response would have been different if there were a surly expression on the bot and the flag said something more like “I’m in a hurry!”.

  3. This is an interesting social experiment but doesn’t say much about the state of robotics. Couldn’t a rock with a note tied to it conceivably make the same journey?

  4. @ #3 – I’m sure the anthropomorphism of the little guy helped to encourage people to engage him. I’m sure he seemed like a small, lost child on a very base level in their psyches. Plus his auto-motion would have drawn attention.

    If the rock had the same, big note flag attached then people might have stopped to read, but my guess is seeing him trying to move on his own but being blocked or stuck would more-readily prompt people to get involved.

  5. @ #5 – Actually Tauk, my guess would be that youngsters would have no problem immediately coming to their aid. I’m sure they would see it as a simple game and get glee in helping the little guy reach his goal, therefore providing themselves with a sense of accomplishment that I think is innate in everyone (at least at that age).

    I think that it’s age which causes us to become jaded as experience can teach us that getting involved can unfortunately bring on bad consequences, or that anything meant to get our attention is often a ploy to separate us from something (money, our belongings, etc). Or maybe it’s just that we simply become more self-involved as we get older and stop looking around us as we glide through our day.

  6. I am curious how many encounters the bots had with actual police officers (I hesitate to include a park ranger in that category, thought I am very impressed that the park ranger turned it around). I would be super impressed if a cop helped the bot on it’s way, rather than quarantine it or simply deposit it in a trash bin. (And Washington Square Park is one thing, I’m sure there are more dicey areas in NYC that the bot wouldn’t survive.)

  7. if we are born with loving nature, perhaps it comes in degrees. Can those with less inherent be taught and become better adults than they might have turned into with no extra intervention?

  8. @ #5 posted by Takuan:

    release them on kindergarten playgrounds to teach empathy.

    But most kindergartners can’t read notes. Or did you mean teach empathy to the robots?

  9. I would love to replicate this experiment on the Common here in Boston, but since I have to commute to work on the MBTA I can scant afford the city shutting down for several days while Mayor Menino calls in the National Guard. :/

  10. Remember bad things usually come packaged in nice warm fuzzy exteriors… Or perhaps that’s just the jaded adult in me speaking.

    Beware the robot overlords that bear “Help me” signs… or “We come in peace”.

  11. They are the cuterest! Which I think hugely influences why people are willing to help them out. We are innately programmed to respond to human infant cuteness – large foreheads, eyes and pupils, smaller features below eye level and smaller limbs – so that we respond to and care for our babies. I think some of this carries over into inanimate objects like these adorable little Tweenbots.

  12. I’ll bet that if they were built with a happy little tune that played when rolling and a baby’s cry when stalled they’d do even better.

  13. What a wonderful whimsical widget”anthropomorphism
    bbonyx?Lighten up,it’s a cardboard caper Oz,Alice
    and Winnie the Pooh revisited.Its appeal touches
    the child in us all and doesn’t need any analysing
    at least not for this 73yr old optomist.Send it up to Toronto we’ll help it be bi-lingual.”Anthro-pomorphism indeed!Beware you may be accused of the
    dread, sesquepedalian syndrome,

  14. More evidence that, despite all that posturing, New Yorkers really are the nicest people on the planet.

    But don’t let them hear you say that.

  15. funny thing is im so fuckin paranoid that i could never do such a project here in the UK. you would be arrested for sure. everyone would run in fear, it COULD AFTER ALL BE A BOMB FROM THE TOWELHEADS.

    excuse the polemic use of the racist remark but thats reality over here.

  16. I think this has much to do with the fact that the bot is self-propelling. Theoretically, people would probably do less for a rock that’s just sitting there because they have to put their lives on hold to carry the rock towards its direction.

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