Cornell researchers study "trash barrel robots" in New York City

Researchers Fanjun Bu, Ilan Mandel, and Wendy Ju, of Cornell Tech in New York, NY and researcher Wen-Ying Lee of Cornell University in Ithaca, recently presented their new research, called "Trash Barrel Robots in the City," at the 2023 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. Their abstract and an accompanying short video were published on the Association for Computing Machinery (New York, NY) website. The abstract for the research provides an overview of the project:

We deployed two trash barrel robots in New York City to study people's interactions with autonomous everyday objects in public spaces. We used a Wizard-of-Oz technique for in-the-wild deployment to simulate robots' autonomy and elicit natural interaction behaviors. This work extends previous research on trash barrel robots toward multi-robot interactions in an urban environment. Our video shows that people in public generally welcome the robots, that the robots encourage social interaction among strangers, that people feel pressure to generate garbage for the robots, and that people's interactions assume the robots' awareness of each other.

In the video, they explain that their robots—one for trash and the other for recycling—were equipped with 360 cameras and powered by recycled hoverboards. Their study took place within the trapezium shaped traffic island called Astor Place in Manhattan, New York City, which is set up with several metal tables and chairs for public seating. The researchers found that people help the robots, and typically aid them pro-actively before the robots ask for help. For instance, one person in the video moved a chair out of the robot's way before the it encountered the obstacle. They also found that the robots make the act of recycling a social and public interaction. In the video one man talks to the robot, saying: "I need you, yeah. Come on, yeah. Yeah, it's trash here, yes. Oh, good boy. Oh, there you go, good boy." In general the robots compelled people to throw trash out, and to have fun while doing so. While most of the people in the video seemed to enjoy the robots, some said that the robots were "creepy," and others were downright hostile—one person kicked one, and someone else gave the robots the middle finger.

I'm still not really certain what the point of this research is—if it's about how to encourage humans to embrace robots and other similar technology, that's a really complicated issue and I believe we should retain more than a modicum of skepticism and wariness (Sydney, I can't say I'm sad they pulled the plug on you). But if it's about how to encourage folks to pick up after themselves, then I'm all for being nice to and cooperative with trash robots.

Friendly trashcans certainly aren't novel, though. My parents tell me that in the early 1970s when they were stationed in Germany, they were delighted to find talking trash cans that requested "papier, bitte." And I found this news story and video clip from 1980 of a talking trash can in New York City. In 2003, Berlin introduced talking trash cans that said "vielen danke." And I'm sure you remember these "sexy-talking" trash cans that were introduced in Malmö, Sweden in 2017. Talking trash cans and robot rubbish bins probably do encourage folks to deposit their litter instead of throwing it on the ground, but they are expensive, and their mechanisms often break and then they fall into disrepair, so I'm not sure it's the ideal solution. I have another better, cheaper idea: just put googly eyes on every trash can!