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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?