HitchBOT on the road

R.I.P. HitchBOT

HitchBOTWhile writing and editing this article I first suggested categorising it under ‘Technology’, but just before publication I changed my mind and asked for it to be moved under ‘Culture’. After all, HitchBOT was always a social experiment, not a technological one.

HitchBOT was created by David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University, in Canada. HitchBOT was a tiny, chatty robot that relied on the kindness of strangers as it hitchhiked its way across three countries, before it met with a violent end in the United States.

HitchBOT was able to carry on very basic conversations and offered factoids to its travelling companions. It was also able to tell the driver who gave it a lift when it was ‘tired’ and in need of recharging from the car’s cigarette lighter. As it couldn’t walk, it ‘hitchhiked’ by asking to be carried by those who chose to give it a ride.

HitchBOT had a GPS device and a 3G connection installed, which allowed the researchers to track its location. It was also equipped with a small camera to take photographs along the way to document its journey to its Twitter account: @HitchBOT.

Between 27 July and 21 August 2014 HitchBOT successfully hitchhiked across Canada, travelling over 10,000 km from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia, over 21 days and 19 rides.

In February this year HitchBOT spent 10 days travelling Germany, through Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg. HitchBOT had an exciting time in Germany, better than some tourists it seems, visiting the Neuschwanstein Castle, Brandenburg Gate and the Cologne Cathedral, and attending a wedding near Frankfurt and the Rose Monday Parade in Cologne.

After Germany HitchBOT vacationed in The Netherlands over 3 weeks from 7 to 24 June in 2015.

HitchBOT hurtHitchBOT started its tour of the United States on 17 July and it had quite a bucket list to complete.

On 1 August 2015 HitchBOT’s adventures came to an abrupt end in Philadelphia, only two weeks into its trip, when vandals ripped HitchBOT apart, beyond repair.

Those who followed this fascinating social experiment across the world were disappointed by this turn of events, especially given the amazing adventures of HitchBOT until its arrival in Philly. It was sad to see the beheaded remains of HitchBOT, and the image did make me lose a little faith in humanity … and I don’t have too much of that left to spare.

Sadly, HitchBOT’s American bucket list will never be completed.

Before its untimely demise, HitchBOT did have a great time in the US, travelling from Massachusetts, where it attended a Red Sox game in Boston, to New York where it visited Times Square.

Some saw the demise of HitchBOT, just two weeks into the American leg of the experiment, as a symptom of a culture of violence in the United States.

Whatever your view of America is, you should keep in mind that vandals are not unique to the United States – they are a global phenomenon, and what happened to HitchBOT could have happened anywhere in the world.

HitchBOT’s family responded to this tragic event with dignity and poise:

Oh dear, my body was damaged, but I live on back home and with all my friends. I guess sometimes bad things happen to good robots! My trip must come to an end for now, but my love for humans will never fade. Thank you to all my friends.

A message from the family:

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. Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots. 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. For now we will focus on the question “what can be learned from this?” and explore future adventures for robots and humans.

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.

Indeed, ‘sometimes bad things happen to good robots.’

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