Robot trash cans have survived a New York City field test

In a recent study, people in New York interacted with robotic trash cans on wheels. Here’s how it went.
A treat for a very good bot. Cornell University

Throwing out trash can be an icky, and sometimes even confusing, experience. To better understand how humans interact with robots, Cornell University researchers recently created and released two trash and recycling bots to do some dirty work in a Manhattan plaza. And for most of the people who interacted with the adorable barrel bots, the robots’ helpful interceptions of waste were welcomed.

The study involved two robots. One was blue, and one was gray, and they were mounted on recycled hoverboard parts and equipped with 360-degree cameras. The bots received all sorts of reactions, from onlookers expressing their appreciation to treating it like a playful dog with a treat. Some of them even felt compelled to “feed” the robots, according to a Cornell press release. 

The scientists behind the creation recently presented their study, called “Trash Barrel Robots in the City,” in the video program at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. This isn’t the first time the trashbots have made their debut in the real world—the robot was deployed at Stanford a few years ago and was met by bystanders who quickly began to dote on the trashbot. According to The Verge in 2016, people became so smitten with the bot that “when it falls over they race to pick it up, even asking if it’s OK.” 

[Related: Meet Garmi, a robot nurse and companion for Germany’s elderly population.]

Team leader Wendy Ju, an associate professor at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and the Technion, originally planned to turn chairs and tables in New York City into bots, but the trash can inevitably won out. “When we shared with them the trash barrel videos that we had done at Stanford, all discussions of the chairs and tables were suddenly off the table,” Ju said in a statement. “It’s New York! Trash is a huge problem!”

Of course, you can’t win over everybody, even if you’re a cute trash can. Some folks found it creepy, raised concerns about surveillance, gave it the middle finger, or even knocked it over. Now, the team hopes to send the trash can out to explore the rest of New York City, hopefully to be met with adoration and not animosity.

“Everyone is sure that their neighborhood behaves very differently,” Ju said. “So, the next thing that we’re hoping to do is a five boroughs trash barrel robot study.”

Watch more about these trash cans on wheels, below: