PKG Fellowships 2020: Kelly Wagman, Part II

Images from Urban Rivers, (Chicago, IL)

by Kelly Wagman

Just a few months ago, Sidewalk Labs announced it would halt its Quayside project along the Toronto waterfront.[i]Sidewalk Labs, an affiliate of Google, had been planning to create a stretch of “smart city” with sensors and other technology built into the urban infrastructure that they claimed would enable a “truly inclusive, sustainable community.”[ii]While Sidewalk Labs cites the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for abandoning the project, it also faced significant push-back from local citizens and advocacy groups concerned with the level of surveillance a Google-affiliated smart city would afford.[iii]This debate highlights the importance of considering ethics and possible unintended consequences when deploying new technology into the built environment.

This summer, I’m helping Urban Rivers (, a non-profit based in Chicago, with strategy and implementation of their Trashbot, a trash-collecting robot. In this blog post, I lay out some of the social and ethical considerations that are important when designing and deploying robots in urban environments. In particular, I will cover what researchers have learned about telepresence robots, ecobots, and trash-collecting robots since the Trashbot fits into all of these categories.

Telepresence Robots

The Trashbot is a telepresence robot, meaning that people can log in and drive it remotely using cameras mounted on the device. Most prior work has investigated telepresence robot use indoors, such as at conferences.[iv]However, Heshmat et al. study pairs of friends who use a telepresence robot outdoors to complete a geocaching activity together.[v]This research on telepresence robots has found that people using the telepresence robot feel more engaged than if they were simply on a video call because they have a “body” and can move their robotic body around with some freedom; however, some ethical issues are raised in the papers.

The most obvious one is around privacy, since the telepresence robot can theoretically record its’ surroundings. To mitigate discomfort, it is important for designers and operators to clearly communicate what the robot is doing and who is at the other end. The studies also found that the person using the telepresence robot may feel self-conscious or bullied, since bystanders were likely to come up and inspect the novel technology and sometimes ignore traditional social interaction norms. For example, in the study with the outdoor geocaching experience, some bystanders in the park threatened to break the robot because they thought it was filming for law enforcement. In the case of the Trashbot, it will be important to alert kayakers, boaters, and onlookers about the robot’s functionality so that they are not concerned and do not act aggressively towards it.


In addition to falling into the telepresence robot category, the Trashbot can also be considered an “ecobot,” or environmental robot. Other ecobots may be designed for specific tasks such as the COTSbot, an undersea robot that uses machine vision to identify and kill predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.[vi]Existing technology such as drones can also be ecobots when they are used to monitor things like deforestation and pollution.[vii]A major concern for ecobots is their impact on wildlife. Studies suggest that this must be carefully monitored and researched: ecobots may induce less stress than humans for wildlife in some areas, but they may also add undue stress.[viii]Much more research is needed in this area.

Additionally, some research on using drones for humanitarian aid explains that there may be unintended negative consequences from swapping humans workers with technology. This may be hard to quantify but can include increased lack of on-the-ground context for aid organizations as well as feelings of isolation for those being given the aid.[ix]It will be important to ensure the Trashbot does not stress wildlife and encourages humans to engage further with nature, as opposed to feeling distanced or accidentally leading people to the conclusion that robots will simply solve humans’ environmental problems.

Trash Robots

A number of trash-collecting robots have been built. In one example, researchers from Stanford and the University of Southern Denmark built a robotic trash barrel that drove around a college campus and collected trash from people.[x]They received mixed reactions: some people found the robot endearing and others thought it was annoying. Interestingly, they found people often thought the robot wanted to be “fed” trash and would throw away things they weren’t originally intending to or look for a reward after giving the robot trash. The authors note this is the opposite of how people treat janitorial staff. Clearly, it would be concerning if the Trashbot induced people to throw more trash into the river.

The reaction from physical bystanders, though, should be observed and the design adjusted if needed. Another famous trash-collecting robot is Mr. Trash Wheel in the Baltimore Harbor. While Mr. Trash Wheel operates without human interaction, it has drawn a significant amount of PR and enthusiasm from the community. In one telling quote from an article by Adam Lindquist, a Mr. Trash Wheel fan says, “I was hanging out with some friends after a fitness class the other night and I noticed that one of them was wearing one of the Mr. Trash Wheel ‘Keepin’ it Wheel’ t-shirts. I’d never known her to have an interest in the environment before, so I commented on it. She was very enthusiastic, talking about how funny he is on Twitter and how much she loved his Reddit Ask Me Anything. And then she said that it’s caused her to be much more serious about recycling (she said she’s a ‘fanatic’ now) and to think about trash a lot more. It’s so awesome to see the impact that a personal connection (via googly eyes and a Twitter feed) can have on behavior change.”[xi]It is fascinating that Mr. Trash Wheel is having an impact not just using technology but through the social character of the robot. Harnessing this kind of engagement may be a powerful tool for environmental progress. 

The Trashbot has significant potential to engage people remotely in environmental service. The existing research literature points to some of the ethical and social issues that will need to be addressed, but much more experimentation is needed to fully understand them. As van Wynsberghe and Donhauser say in their paper, “There is some prima facie intuitive pull toward assuming that all of these [environmental robot] applications should by fiat be considered innovative and positive.

Indeed, if a company were to indicate that they were ‘investing in environmental robotics,’ the public perception would likely be positive and people may be excited and eager to purchase the products of said company without understanding what that could really mean.”[xii]I think the Trashbot is off to a fantastic start but, like any new product, needs to continue considering issues of surveillance, wildlife stress, and human-robot connection through design iterations.

Kelly B. Wagman is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. She is working for Urban Rivers in Chicago this summer. Her interests include human-robot interaction, ethical technology, and design. Please feel free to reach out via MIT channels.

[i]Doctoroff, D. L. (2020, May 7). Why we’re no longer pursuing the Quayside project—And what’s next for Sidewalk Labs. Medium.


[iii]Hawkins, A. J. (2020, May 7). Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs shuts down Toronto smart city project. The Verge.

[iv]Barabas, C., Bavitz, C., Matias, J. N., Xie, C., & Xu, J. (2015). Legal and Ethical Issues in the Use of Telepresence Robots: Best Practices and Toolkit. We Robot 2015 Fourth Annual Conference on Robotics, Law & Policy.

[v]Heshmat, Y., Jones, B., Xiong, X., Neustaedter, C., Tang, A., Riecke, B. E., & Yang, L. (2018). Geocaching with a Beam: Shared Outdoor Activities through a Telepresence Robot with 360 Degree Viewing. Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–13.

[vi]van Wynsberghe, A., & Donhauser, J. (2018). The Dawning of the Ethics of Environmental Robots. Science and Engineering Ethics, 24(6), 1777–1800.



[ix]van Wynsberghe, A., & Comes, T. (2020). Drones in humanitarian contexts, robot ethics, and the human–robot interaction. Ethics and Information Technology, 22(1), 43–53.

[x]Yang, S., Mok, B. K.-J., Sirkin, D., Ive, H. P., Maheshwari, R., Fischer, K., & Ju, W. (2015). Experiences developing socially acceptable interactions for a robotic trash barrel. 2015 24th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN), 277–284.

[xi]Lindquist, A. (2016). Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. The Journal of Ocean Technology, 11(12), 11–12.

[xii]van Wynsberghe, A., & Donhauser, J. (2018). The Dawning of the Ethics of Environmental Robots. Science and Engineering Ethics, 24(6), 1777–1800.

Tags: Environment, PKG Fellowships, PKG Fellowships Summer 2020, Tech for Good

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