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The Tragic Death of a Hitchhiking Robot

A lot of people talk about how robots are going to rise up and destroy us, and perhaps this is true. Yet, not many people seem to think about when it is the other way around. How do we react to these new technologies and just how willing are humans to spare helpless robots that are left in our care? Not very well, it turns out, and a good example of this is the time a bunch of vandals decapitated and destroyed the world’s first hitchhiking robot.

On the surface it was a lovely idea. In 2013 professors David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University created what they called the “HitchBOT,” an experiment with the aim of answering the question of how human beings interact with new technology and “Can robots trust human beings?” The robot itself was rather simple and low-tech in physical appearance, its torso cylindrical and more or less a plastic bucket, with two flexible arms and legs trailing off of it, one arm that could raise to hold out a thumb, an acrylic cake-saver for a head, but it had fairly advanced electronics in its brain. It was able to talk to people in a rudimentary sense, and could hold very basic conversations, able to throw out numerous factoids in the process in what was hoped to be an entertaining way. It also had complete GPS tracking abilities and routinely took photographs of its environment. Its mission? To hitchhike far and wide, and to be sort of a travelling companion for whoever picked it up. Harris would say of the weird project:

HitchBOT was designed as a social robot with a personality and all the classic elements of drama, so it had a quest, and that quest was fraught with obvious dangers. Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots, e.g. as helpers in our homes. But this project takes it the other way around and asks: can robots trust human beings? It was extremely important that people would trust it and want to help it out which is why we made it the size of a child. We want to see what people do with this kind of technology when we leave it up to them. It’s an art project in the wild — it invites people to participate.

The HitchBOT

The HitchBOT was let loose to successfully hitchhike across Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, usually left out to ask passing vehicles for a lift, after which it would be dropped off at the next location, all unattended and unsupervised. It was a smashing success at first, people loved it, with it even being flown in an airplane cockpit, it attended a comic convention and a wedding, and it had its portrait painted in the Netherlands. It had its own Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, and people seemed to have fallen hopelessly in love with it. As its progress was tracked there were places where it became so popular that its handlers were forced to even turn off its GPS to keep crowds of people from bothering the people whose homes it rested in. One of its creators would say of its growing popularity:

People began to decorate HitchBOT with bracelets and other jewellery. This little robot with its simple design triggered so much creativity in people. And that was one of the biggest takeaways of the experiment, that we should stop telling people what to do with technology.

It would travel nearly 7,000 miles in these countries without issue, before finding itself in the United States, where is was meant to take a cross country tour. The creators were curious to see how far this little robot could make it without supervision, and so far he was exceeding all expectations. He was meant to start his trip in 2015 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, from where he would make his way all the way to San Francisco, California, and it even had a sign on it that read “San Francisco or bust.” At first, things went very well, with the robot touring sites in Boston, Salem, Gloucester, and managing to take in Fenway Park and Times Square, New York and the somewhere in the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is dropped off the grid. For several days its creators tried to get a bead on where it had gone, and then they found out in the most tragic of ways. Two weeks after it had begun its tour of the United States, some passerby managed to find the little robot lying by the side of a Philadelphia road and it had seen better days. The machine had been totally trashed, with its head torn off and wires hanging out of it, its arms and legs either torn off or violently twisted around its body, and one of the robot’s co-creators, Frauke Zeller, would say:

HitchBOT’s trip came to an end last night in Philadelphia after having spent a little over two weeks hitchhiking and visiting sites in Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and New York City. One day we received images of HitchBOT lying in the street with its arms and legs ripped off and its head missing. It affected thousands of people worldwide. HitchBOT had become an important symbol of trust. It was very sad and it hit us and the whole team more than I would have expected. Unfortunately, HitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia. We can see on all our data that the tablet and battery and everything shut off at the same time so it must have been when they vandalised the bot. They sent us images and it’s really beyond repair. There’s not a single wire inside and all the things are broken. Sometimes bad things happen to good robots. It was quite a setback, and we didn’t really expect it. We were spoiled by the kindness of other people who had looked after HitchBOT.

The HitchBOT on the road

The “death” of the HitchBOT was met by an outpouring of sadness, anger, and outrage over social media, and blame was levelled at two Youtubers by the names of Jesse Wellens and “Ed Bassmaster” who the robot was last seen with, although they denied any involvement and insisted they had dropped it off. There is no evidence to hold them responsible, and the mystery deepens in that there was no photo taken by the robot of its killers, with Zeller saying, “It didn’t take any pictures unfortunately of the culprits. They were lucky because it takes images every 20 minutes so it must have been in-between that interval.” In the meantime, the creators haven’t sought to press charges, and have expressed:

Our thoughts remain unchanged. We’re not so much interested in locating or finding out who this particular individual is. We see this as kind of a random act and one that could have occurred anywhere, on any one of HitchBOT’s journeys. I really believe this could have happened anywhere. Robots can trust humans but there’s always some people anywhere that might have issues for any reason. What we see now is the outpouring of sentiment and people expressing their feelings – thousands. We didn’t expect that, and this is something you don’t tend to find in typical human-robot interaction experiments. We have no interest in pressing charges or finding the people who vandalized HitchBOT; we wish to remember the good times, and we encourage Hitchbot’s friends and fans to do the same. We know that many of HitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over.

Indeed it doesn’t seem to be over, as HitchBOT has been rebuilt in 2019 once again as HitchBOT 2.0, which will hopefully have better luck than its predecessor. In the end, the people responsible for the destruction of the original HitchBOT have never been found or charged, and it leaves us wondering just how successful the experiment was. If the aim was to gauge how humans would react to new technology in an unsupervised environment, then it was ultimately a failure. In answer to the creators’ original question, can robots trust humans? No, apparently they cannot. Perhaps there is still a distrust or animosity towards such things. Maybe it was just a bunch of pranksters who wanted a little media coverage. Maybe they should have equipped it with machine guns. It is hard to say how to process this, but it is certainly obvious that it is good that it wasn’t the other way around. Let’s hope it stays that way.