This robotic trash can enlists children to pick up litter

Sociable Trash Box robot
© ICD Lab

Picking up litter and putting it in its proper place, whether that's the trash can or the recycle bin, ought to be second nature for all of us by now, but it's obvious that there are still a lot of litterbugs trashing our planet.

So aside from trying to educate or guilt-trip all of the litterers into properly disposing of their waste, what could help make public spaces less trashy? If this project from Japan is any indication, we may need a little help from our robotic overlords and their cohort of children.

The Sociable Trash Box robot (STB), from Japan's Toyohashi University of Technology, doesn't pick up trash all by itself (and in fact, isn't meant to, although robotic trash collectors could be another method for keeping the streets and sidewalks clean). What it does do, however, is to induce kids to pick up garbage by using "interactive social cues and vocal interactions to build a social coupling with children."

"STB has two parts as its body (upper and lower), and the upper part contains three servomotors: one for twisting itself to the left and right, and the other two motors for bending forward and backward. The lower part has two servomotors for moving its entire body to the left and right directions. The STB contains three kinds of sensors and a single camera to obtain environmental informatics: a pyroelectric infrared sensor, an infrared ray sensor (IR sensor), and a distance sensor. The pyroelectric infrared sensor is capable of tracing human body temperatures which are used to discover the crowded space, and the IR sensor traces whether trash has arrived to its container. The STB uses a distance sensor for avoiding obstacles, and also utilize to make distance between other STBs. Single webcam used for trash detection and recognition of other STBs through image processing." - ICD Lab

Although these little robots seem like a viable method for actually cleaning up garbage, they're really meant more for investigating effective behaviors, social cues, and interactions between the robots and children. And while that may serve a worthwhile purpose for studying human-machine interactions, and perhaps advancing the state of robotic and human collaboration, I found myself wondering just what would happen if these little mechanical guys were instead programmed to identify and publicly shame litterers into cleaning up their messes. [Cue Big Brother comments now.]

STB project page with references to journal publications: Sociable Trash Box

This robotic trash can enlists children to pick up litter
We've got social-oriented technology all over the place, in our phones and our cars and in our browsers. Why not in our trash cans?

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