Some Trash Cans Can Be Sociable Too.

“Tidy your room, now!” is a command that many of us have heard more than once in our youth. We probably found much more pressing things to do. But when we get older and walk around in a public place, some of us drop litter and the rest of us gnash our teeth and complain. Of course, if litterbins are full and overflowing, our ire might be directed at the local municipal bureaucrats, but when they aren’t full up we rant about the nature of the general population.

There may be a solution on the horizon, (not for the bureaucrats but for the general population,) in the form of sociable trash boxes or STBs. Yamaji et al have designed and built such devices and tried them out with children who are used as an unspoilt (that is naïve) model for behavior (1).

Robotic trash boxes were built and had different colors to indicate their favorite trash. They could rock and roll about and could see trash as well as kids. They were keenly aware of their spatial relations from proximity sensors. This defined three spaces – the large distance or public space, a social space (close enough to be aware that they were interacting) and an intimate or personal space.

The robot has a sensor that tells it that there is a human around that it can importune them for food. The 5 – 6-year olds didn’t take much notice of the STBs waggling and begging to be fed at long distance. However, if they came closer to the child and the trash can jiggled about with excitement, they were rather more successful. The kids didn’t care if they were up close and personal or just sociably close, they responded the same way about 30% of the time and picked up the trash and put it in the box.

That might sound like a reasonable success rate, but wait, the rate went up to a whopping 70% when the boxes swarmed together and made their approached . Even better as the boxes were in different colors, the kids sorted the trash into the right type of box for paper, plastic etc.

I’m sure that we’d all feel pressured to pick up our trash, or other peoples, and put it in the correct box when being approached by a swarm of hungry boxes, jiggling up and down begging to be fed. How could we just walk on by and leave them jumping up and down by a discarded soda can when all we would have to do is pick it up and pop it in the blue box?

  1. Y. Yamaji, T. Miyake, Y. Yoshiike, P. R. S. DeSilva & M. Okada, Int. J. Soc. Robotics, doi 10.1007/s 12369-011-01114-y

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