Posted by on 16 April 2009 at 11:01 pm  Ethics, Fun, Psychology
Apr 162009

Via Flibbertigibbet and The Crucible, I recently discovered the fabulous little experiment of the the tweenbots. Here’s the basic idea, as described by its creator, Kacie Kinzer:

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.”

The actual robots are quite adorable, so I definitely recommend checking out the pictures on the web site.

Regarding the significance of the experiment, Kendall writes:

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Kendall then observes that the tweenbot experiment shows the dismal view of man to be false. He’s right.

I’d say something in addition, however. As Flibby’s own hope to see a tweenbot illustrates, many people are eager for some fresh novelty in their lives. They want to experience interesting things outside the ordinary humdrum of their daily tasks. To a benevolent person, such experiences brighten the mood. They make a day particularly memorable and pleasant. They highlight the simple joys of being a human creature living in a hospitable world.

Many such experiences are mere happenstance — yet a person can also seek them out for himself. He can visit places he’s never seen, attend to the small features of his surroundings, and pause to consider bright spots therein. The happy little tweenbots offer much reward to people who do that. So to offer the tweenbots a little help in return seems like a very reasonable trade.

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