What Can Adorable Robots Teach Us About Altruism?

Kacie Kinzer‘s robots have always depended on the kindness of strangers. They can only drive in one direction, can’t right themselves if they tip over, and can’t sense anything about the world around them. The only thing these “Tweenbots” do have is a cute smiley face and a note asking passersby to please help them get where they want to go. And that simple software works. In a series of trials, Kacie’s Tweenbots were safely directed by the strangers they met from one corner of New York’s busy Washington Square Park to the other. Not a single one was lost, damaged, or stolen. To everyone’s relief, the bomb squad wasn’t called once.

Kacie secretly followed her robots on their merry little ways, filming their encounters with people who crossed their paths.

“They’re very expressive of vulnerability and intention,” Kacie says of her creations. “My robots would make a very pathetic noise when they got caught in a pothole or under a bench. The motors would grind and whine. Something about that speaks to people” — especially people with dogs, she says. “I have a lot of footage that becomes almost too cute, because the person, the dog, and the robot are all interacting.” People routinely talked to the little wandering bots, even turning them away from trouble — for example, if one was trundling off into traffic.

Kacie thinks one reason people are so eager to help her robots is because they identify with their struggle to get from one place to the next. Maybe, in helping these defenseless, smiling robots, people are helping themselves.

There’s some science to support this. Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago, recently found hard evidence of something most of us intuitively know: people give human traits to objects around them as a way of alleviating loneliness. “Non-human connections can be very powerful,” Epley said. “A brain’s not so sensitive to whether it’s a person or not. If it’s something that has a lot of traits associated with what it means to be a human, then all the better for us, it seems.”

And what’s more human than struggling to find your way in the world?


I'm sure the fact everyone thought they were being filmed (which they were, surprise!) had something to do with it though.

Eric M. Jones

The Japanese are much more in tune with this than Westerners. For example, they are very concerned with the "Face" on a car, whereas Westerners don't even understand the concept and regard the cars' "Face" as a design accident.

This question of machine-consciousness is an old one. The best answer is Ray Kurzweil's--
Someday (in the very near future) a robot (or computer) will make a very convincing argument that it is a conscious being....and we will believe it. We will just accept it. Get used to it.

G Jeffery

I did just that the other day for a female mallard duck and 10 newly hatched ducklings. They needed to get out of a parking lot and over to the nearby pond. Too cute to ignore!


"And what's more human than struggling to find your way in the world?"

Opposable thumbs.


"And what's more human than struggling to find your way in the world?"

The urge to pick up a blunt object and smack someone with it.


I like that the park official lent a hand and didn't try to remove the robot.


This post teaches us more about the psychology of attraction over altruism. Now if she wants to truely suceed in this validating altruism try branching to other cities or areas of NYC. I can bet different results.


I like it when humans help me when I run aground and get my gears get all grindy, in order to find my way in the world.

maybe if humans were walking around with little white flags declaring our difficulties we would all be headed in our own right directions?


I think that the conclusions that Kacie and Epley embrace are a bit too broad. "Identifying with the robot's struggle..." "Humanizing things to alleviate loneliness..." Those sound very nice and might make one go all mushy over human nature.

I think the likelihood of helping is governed much more by the ratio of
(expected effort to help)/
(expected return of helping)

So all one must do is give it a little nudge with one's foot, and in return one gets positive emotions. The "stuck noises" increase the perceived return through negative reinforcement by eliciting pity. I would want to make it harder to help and see how that affected the outcome.

Mike Symons


John Neff

How about a nine foot tall robot (with a scowling face) that is armed with a machine gun and a grenade launcher. How many would help then?


Kurt Schickle is the only adorable robot that I know!

Science Minded

are we back to magical thinking these days. There was a time in human history when the distinction betwen true and false was blurred. Such as when people though that walking under a ladder will result in their having bad luck. Some peope in our world still think that way.But even they know that if you want to know how to fix a tire, there is a book where you can gain such knowledge of the relations of things. If you are posing the question of what makes us human (aside from our physical make-up- that is asomewhat easy one-- the questions we ask, the problems we encounter and our ability to really solve some, inability to solve others and need to turn to faith when it comes to problems of meaning. Machines do not/cannot produce more than what we put into them. Humans are capable of transcending the machine and developing relations that express such connections. I would imagine that can, in the long run, make for human survival long-term. How do I know? In science an original idea must be correct if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile. At least one now comes to mind.



It looks & hard to believe the way robots are guded to their destination ...............

I guess in the same same way the developed nation help African countries to be in right direction and make this world as a better place to leave

mike roddy

This proves that the world as we know it is coming to an end. A robot, after all, is a collection of plastic, wires, and software. Imagining human emotional characteristics, or plugging in human needs, is neurotic and needy behavior.

I've had similar problems with animal loving girlfriends. When things got tough (not unusual when in a relationship with me), they went back to the pets they could count on. This had the effect of retarding their own growth, and can become a lifelong pattern of chickening out when it comes to learning how to relate to actual humans.

Christian Bieck

Alan Turing thought about this over half a century ago when discussing the beginnings of Artificial Intelligence. In the Turing (thought-) Test, an interviewer tries to find out through questions and answers whether the "person" sitting on the other end of a computer terminal is human or a machine. But if the machine can convince the interviewer that it is human, does that make it human?

IMO, the answer is "no", but also irrelevant.

Consider a different type of Turing Test, in which the interviewer tries to determine whether the person is male or female. If a woman managed to convince a group of male interviewers that she is male, would she be male? No, not physically, but at least she has the mind processes of "maleness" down.

Once a machine masters the mind processes of "humanness" to such a depth that it can fool us into thinking it human - why would physical differences, i.e. opposable thumbs matter?


Science Minded

oh yes, lest we not forget "feelings." SRRF


I like that the park official lent a hand and didn't try to remove the robot.