It's easy to love a robot with a face. But it turns out we'll react just as positively to a trash can sitting on a Roomba. That was the finding of four students at the Stanford Center for Design Research, who sent a mobile trash can equipped with a hidden camera into two public locations and recorded the ways that people interacted with it. Unbeknownst to the research subjects, the researchers were piloting the trash can from out of view, letting them drive it over to anyone who started brandishing trash at it. Almost immediately, people began treating the trash can as a cherished family pet.
A year-old video of their findings by researcher Wendy Ju, which was presented during a panel at South By Southwest today, shows humanity rejoicing in the arrival of the garbage butler they never knew they always needed. A young child immediately attempts to lure the robot with trash, as one might tempt a dog with beef jerky. An old man whistles at the robot to draw it closer, offering it a garbage treat. ("People seem to think the robot wants trash," as a deadpan title card memorably puts it.) By the video's end, humans are so enamored with the trash can that when it falls over they race to pick it up, even asking if it's OK.
Sadly, the robot trash can was a lie. We live in a benighted age when our trash cans are stationary, incapable of responding to our whistles and waves. But this video shows us that another world is possible: one in which we not only develop and acquire robot trash cans but love them, support them, and turn them right-side-up again. It is a future built on empathy and garbage, and it cannot arrive quickly enough.