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It’s the Little Things in Life That Restore My Faith in Humanity

October 26, 2009

In what may be the cutest experiment ever conducted, Kacie Kinzer proves that humans are, in fact, not completely self-absorbed assholes.

Behold: Tweenbots, science guaranteed to make you squee.

It doesn’t take much time on a crowded New York City sidewalk to come to the conclusion that humans operate completely independent from one another, with absolutely no regard for anyone but themselves. Concerned by this observation, Kinzer set out to prove everyone wrong.

And so, she developed a Tweenbot, an adorable cardboard robot that slowly moves forward in only a straight line. Each bot has a flag asking for help in being guided to a far-away destination, which it can only reach by being dependent on human strangers to steer it in the right direction and away from obstacles or danger. The odds against a successfuly journey were many:

-the extremely fragile and vulnerable state of the Tweenbot
-the great possibility to steer wildly off course (hell, it’s difficult enough to navigate cities sometimes, even with a cognitive brain)
-the dangers of traffic/construction/being trampled by a mob of businessmen
-the jadedness of New Yorkers, who might possibly not have the heart even to help a wee little robot
-the possibility of the bot being suspected as a terrorist

Kinzer inconspicuously followed the bot with a hidden video camera from a distance to watch people’s reactions to Tweenbot. The results surprised her and the description sent me into fits of delighted giggles. Over a course of a few months and many expeditions, every single Tweenbot made it successfully to their destinations with the help of strangers. Not even one was damaged. Every time a bot became stuck, someone would come to its rescue. People seemed to instantly care deeply about the fate of the Tweenbot, and those that helped it represented every kind of person imaginable. Some ignored the destination and pointed it in a different direction to avoid getting stuck or damaged. Some even talked to it. My favorite anecdote was of a man who pointed a bot away from rolling into traffic and said to it, You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised myself. I was waiting for heartbreak of a robot that was left to wander astray into an open pothole or, even worse, was purposely broken by hoodlums. I didn’t have faith enough in humanity that each Tweenbot would make it safely to their destinations.

I was going to attempt to make some grand statements about the gloriousness of this experiment, but I think Kinzer herself said it best:

The journey the Tweenbots take each time they are released in the city becomes a story of people’s willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, of being lost, and of having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone. As each encounter with a helpful pedestrian takes the robot one step closer to attaining its destination, the significance of our random discoveries and individual actions accumulates into a story about a vast space made small by an even smaller robot.

Originally written May 3, 2009

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