Lifestyle & Belief

A Begging Robot Draws Attention to Poor in Wealthy Luxembourg

The International Monetary Fund lists Luxembourg as one of the richest countries in the world. The tiny European country, a Grand Duchy, has transformed itself into a banking and insurance giant in the years since World War II.

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But that doesn't mean poverty does not exist in Luxembourg, and a new exhibit at City Museum of Luxembourg is drawing attention to the reality of poverty with the help of a begging robot.

To get to Luxembourg's begging robot, you have to pass through crowded streets filled with locals and tourists dining in expensive restaurants and window shopping at high-end boutiques. One thing you do not see is many people begging. That is, in part, because panhandling is not allowed by law anywhere in the city.

But as you enter Luxembourg's history museum, you are greeted by a three-foot tall robot on a cart with rolling wheels. The beggar 'bot; is made of recycled desktop computer hard drives. Above the stacked drives is a monitor with a simple pixelated face – two small blips for eyes, and a straight line for the mouth.

As you approach, sensors trigger an automated recording in French, German and English. "Dear visitor," the robot intones, "I am an electronic beggar for the materially deprived."

As it speaks, two CD trays mounted just under the face move in and out. Metallic hands have been attached to the trays, mimicking a beggar putting out hands for change.

You simply put a coin on the hand, and as it retracts, your donation falls into the machine's "belly."

"We were looking for a project that could make people think about their behavior toward beggars," says Marie-Paule Jungblut, who is the curator of a current exhibit called "Poor Luxembourg?"

To get people thinking about their reactions to poverty, she says, the museum decided to commission the robot.

"First you ask yourself, 'what is this?' Then you ask yourself, 'why should I give money to a machine?' And then you ask yourself, 'would I give money to a person or a machine?'

Jungblut turned to Dutch artist Kaspar Koenig to build the begging robot.

"The idea of this particular robot was appealing," Koenig says. "I thought that this was really something I could see in a rich country where people will probably spend some money on a funny thing like this, and that will maybe make a change, or at least a little."

Fittingly, Koenig built the robot on the cheap, for less than $100.

The design plans he got for free, from Slovenian artist Sašo Sedlaček, who put his design online after creating the first begging robot back in 2006.

"The idea was to create a really simple machine that practically anyone could assemble," Sedlaček says. Back then, he says, the idea was to put them in shopping malls, where Slovenians were spending time and money, but where beggars could not legally beg.
He notes that versions of his original design have since turned up in cities all over the world. When it comes to making money, the machines do quite well.

"It has a cute factor," Koenig says. "And people are more likely to give it to a cute machine to a poor beggar that smells in the corner."

Before his robot was installed in the Luxembourg museum, though, Koenig tested it out on the street.

"We put it in front of a Cartier window shop. People were going and looking in the Cartier window, and then you saw them hesitate, thinking about whether they should give money to the robot or not."

Visitors to the museum are giving. Officials say by the time the "Poor Luxembourg?" exhibit is over in 2012, the bot will have collected close to $8,000.

All of the money collected will be split among groups that help the poor in Luxembourg.

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