New Yorkers welcome robotic garbage bins, treat them like humans

Experts agree that citizens have thus far mostly had a positive reaction to the robo bins.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of garbage bins.jpg
Representational image of garbage bins.

Mercedes Rancaño Otero/iStock 

Several garbage bins in New York City have become robotic and citizens of the city are actually welcoming them, showing an unusual approach to machines that often cause humans to feel threatened.

This is according to a report by CBC’s As it Happens published on Thursday.

The new bots are the work of a few research students from Cornell University who operate them remotely with help from a camera that's fixed to each bin.

Excited to see them

"For the most part, people seem excited to see them," Wendy Ju, associate professor and PhD supervisor for this study at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, told CBC’s As it Happens guest host Aarti Pole. "They understand right away that they're there to do a task."

The researchers reported that passers by even waved at the bins calling them to come closer in order to throw trash in them. This is a far cry from the suspicion and resentment encountered with many robots that are seen as replacing humans in a variety of tasks.

Some even went so far as to refer to the motorized bins as "buddies” and praise them for their work.

"It's actually a big assumption to make, that the two robots would know anything about one another, and we thought that was very interesting," Ju said.

Other experts agree that the robo bins could have a positive effect on all who come in contact with them.

Experts agree

Fiona Carroll, a program director with the Cardiff School of Technologies who was not involved in this study, told the CBC in an email that the "novelty factor" of seeing the motorized bins "could attract initial attention and interest from people, potentially leading to increased engagement in [litter reduction] efforts."

Meanwhile, Moojan Ghafurian, co-director of the University of Waterloo's Social and Intelligent Robotics Lab, who was not involved in the study, told the CBC in an email that it is quite common for humans to anthropomorphize robots

"Many people name their robot vacuums and interpret behaviors from their cleaning patterns. In this case, the robot approaching people and its specific movements can be one reason why we may assign human-like behaviors to it," Ghafurian explained.

Ju however, reported that there were also some instances where passers by reacted violently to the bins, pushing the bots with their feet and "harassing" them.

Ju referred to a social media video of one of the bins with the caption: "Mayor Eric Adams doing the most he can with the NYC sanitation budget” to explain these extreme reactions.

"It's entirely possible that some of that aggression or concern about the cameras on the robots might have to do with people's feelings about the New York City government," said Ju.