Ducks and robots

The relationship between rubber ducks and robots might not be obvious. Why the duckies in Duckietown?

The duckies in Duckietown

We get often asked: Why the duckies?

The are several answers to this question! In no particular order:

1. Duckies against academic plagiarism in robotics research

A well-known challenge in the world of academia is plagiarism, i.e., to take advantage of other people’s work without giving due credit. In simple terms, to copy. 

A less well-known but yet important challenge is self-plagiarism, where authors “recycle” (parts of) their work when writing papers, with the objective to maximize the number of publications (“publish or perish!”, they say).

In 2016, to mitigate this phenomenon, ICRA (the International Conference on Robotics and Automation), suggested that video submission accompanying articles should include an element of novelty (yes, the duckies!) to make sure those videos were not recycled. It was a hit (see ICRA 2016 “ducks and Robots” initiative)! 

Here are some examples of what came of it (all credits to the respective authors):

2. Duckies to break common preconceptions on robotics

The most common adjectives that come up when thinking of robots are: powerful, precise, fast, and dangerous. These are attributes that appeal more to specific demographics than others (e.g., males rather than females). 

Duckietown’s mission is to democratize access to the science and technology of autonomy. To do so we challenge this preconception, that alienates parts of the population. 

We designed Duckietown to instead be the opposite: colorful, imprecise, slow, not powerful, and borderline silly (in appearance), while preserving the technical and scientific complexity of “real robotics. And duckies are inclusive! 

3. Duckies as a tribute to the Boston city area

Duckietown was born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge. Ducks play somewhat of a role as a fun symbol of the Boston city area, thanks to the famous children’s story “Make Way for Ducklings“.

Ducks are immortalized in a statue in the Boston Commons, which has become a city landmark.

Statue of ducks at the Boston city Commons