Coronavirus: 'Lightning Rod' Robot in Times Square

The coronavirus robot is supposed to calm people down in Times Square, which is impossible.
Brad Bergan

A robot in Times Square called the Promobot is trying and failing to assuage passersby of the coronavirus blues. Basically a laggy iPad in a robot shell, its LED-lit face stares blankly up at the user, like a drugged puppy trying to do good by the very ex-best-friend that left it there.


I, Promobot

Promobot's makers left the extremely basic droid in the heart-quaking center of the city of New York — Times Square — hoping it would "check for common coronavirus symptoms and advice (sic) to visit a doctor through interactive survey," in a press release whose typo could also be a Freudian cry for help, from Promobot, through its creators, for a clue on what to do with itself.

A series of videos and words by Gizmodo writer Eleanor Fye drives the point home: this robot is not very useful. It doesn't perform biometric tests or screens. Instead, it plays "useful idiot" (not her words) to chill everyone out. The robot's makers claim it's there to help people "stay calm" and "ensure people are not too preoccupied and avoid panic in the media."

Rhetorical robot questions are a big help

It's not a bad idea to manage public perception, during a crisis, especially one that feels overblown. The most common of colds, influenza, is far more likely to deaden the lifestyle of someone who likes to walk in Times Square. But Promobot likely doesn't know "how to twitter," and the news that surrounds the bot doesn't seem to be working toward a calm place at all.

Some of the questions it asks include:

  • Have you had a fever in the past three days?
  • Do you have a dry cough?
  • Do you have a headache or feel tired/weak/fatigued?
  • Have you experienced nausea or diarrhea in the past 7 days?

In the Gizmodo videos, Promobot seems incapable of undestanding Fye's answers to its questions, as the voiceovers criss-cross the on-screen text.

Unlike the Statue of Liberty performers, neurotic non-profit canvassers, and most unlike the guerrilla car-washers in Inwood, Promobot doesn't find ways to turn a chance encounter into an ostensibly good experience.

Instead of promobot, actual worries would be better assuaged by a visit to WebMD, or a quick perusal of the CDC's website. Not because the latter are more informative (and coherent!), but because the main in-situ function of Promobot seems to be sharing a touch-screen with the roughly 330,000 people marching through Times Square on the daily. Which is the literal opposite of a quarantine.

Of course, it could be intentional. Maybe Promobot is a lightning rod created by the most cynical sense of humor on Earth. Actually.

Let's hope not.

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