These ‘trash bots’ have been helping keep Brooklyn’s Albee Square clean

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By Dan Sears

Two trash cans on wheels have been roaming around Downtown Brooklyn’s Albee Square in the early afternoon for the last two weeks, going up to people as they finish their lunch to collect trash. And while they may be pretty good at it, collecting people’s trash isn’t their ultimate purpose.

The “trash bots” are part of a Cornell Tech study to better understand how humans interact with robots in public spaces. The project, which essentially deploys trash bins on remote-controlled hoverboards equipped with 360-degree cameras, hopes to explore how people think about robots and asks what mental models they use to interact with robots — such as whether people treat them like waiters, pets, children or something else.

“Why does that trash can have a camera on it?” asked one concerned passerby.

The research team hopes to tour the robots through all five boroughs to observe the differences in how people interact with them.

“And all of this can go into basically the design of future robots,” said Frank Bu, the doctoral student leading the study. In Albee Square on Wednesday afternoon, people eating lunch or passing through seemed amused, like Keisha Trappier.

“I think it’s cute, you know? I know it’s needed because there’s always trash,” Trappier said. “I enjoyed it. I was just wondering like, does it really sense me, does it know that I’m by it? So that’s why I put my water thing in front of it to see like, and you know, it’s on point, it moved and stuff.”

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While the robots are designed to study how people interact with autonomous everyday robots, in fact, they are remote-controlled by members of Bu’s team sitting at one of the tables in the plaza.

Trappier said she appreciated the idea of an automated object helping to keep the area litter-free, but that’s as far as her affinity for robots goes.

“Robot garbage? Yeah, like that is OK. Robot people? No. So if that’s what they are trying to go at, no. We still need people out here to handle certain things,” Trappier said.

Bu said the study has met with some concerns over trash robots taking human jobs, but he added that robots are much more likely to augment people in their jobs than replace them. The robots are also purposely left to look like objects rather than humanoids, keeping their purpose obvious, he said.

“This amazing team — they are the [people] who really keep this space clean, not my trash cans, because my trash can, first of all, doesn’t have hands, doesn’t clean anything. People still need to do all the labor,” Bu said. “It’s really mostly as an aide instead of replacement. I really hope this can make their job easier. That’s all I hope for.”

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The robots were deployed in Albee Square in collaboration with local development nonprofit Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which runs the space. And while the organization’s President Regina Myer welcomed the initiative, she doesn’t expect roaming trash cans to be the norm anytime soon.

“I think what was really interesting for us was activating the public space with an experiment, which is really another way to view what can happen in public space,” Myer said. “Since our goal is to keep public space clean, we loved that Cornell Tech was testing its robot with a trash can. Am I expecting there to be robot-driven trash cans sometime in the future? Not just yet, no.”

But Wilson Mbwale, who lives in Downtown Brooklyn and was eating lunch at Albee Square on Wednesday, is already thinking about what a future with more robots will look like.

“Other things will come, and I think the mindset is we have to think outside the box as to what will happen in the future. Will we even need to work?” Wilson said. “By then, I would think you have had everything that you wanted in life. Do you really need to work? So when you come out to enjoy the moment, at least something is there to take your troubles and whatever away and keep whatever it is in a pristine order and fashion, you know, and just exist.”

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But that future might be a long way away. After two hard-working weeks, on its last day at Albee Square, the recycling bin bot seemed to unexpectedly clock out on Wednesday afternoon. After slowing down to a stop, it stopped responding to the control’s demands. It turns out robots need breaks, too.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Keisha Trappier’s name.

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