HitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot from Ontario, Canada, had hitched across Germany, the Netherlands, and of course Canada, but his recent exploits, traveling across the United States ended in tragedy. On August 1st hitchBOT was found dismembered and left for dead in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia.
And just like that, hitchBOT became a social media superstar.
In the words of his creators, Dr. David Smith (McMaster University) and Dr. Frank Zeller (Ryerson University), "simply put, hitchBOT was designed to be a free-spirited robot who wants to explore the world and meet new friends along the way. This usually worked out splendidly, only sometimes bad things happen to good robots...." A social experiment of sorts, surely intended to gauge human empathy and willingness to interact with the largely inanimate hitchBOT.
As a fellow traveler and hitch hiking advocate I thought it might be worthwhile to weigh in on the subject. A lot of people seem to be pretty upset about the situation and nearly unanimously the global audience has declared that it is "not surprised this happened in the United States". But, what does the end of hitchBOT's journey really tell us.
Tragedy Generates Headlines
Unfortunately for hitchBOT while his travels had been going "well" up until his untimely demise the quirky social experiment had gained very little interest or attention. However, immediately following the destruction of hitchBOT the project's popularity skyrocketed. Beyond that, I'm not sure hitchBOT's adventures or his dismemberment has given us any insight into human nature or any other cultural phenomena. Here's why:
While it's undeniable that hitchBOT is/was a charismatic and fun interactive or "living" art project it's tough to say that his successes or failures and interactions with people as he traveled could be in any way representative anything beyond the nature of the interactions, which was person to robot.
If hitchBOT's creators were interested in measuring, for instance, the viability and the perceptions of hitch hiking in a modern world, which would be an incredibly interesting topic worthy of study and exploration, or if they wished to measure human responses to a strange situation and a call to action, they have missed the mark entirely. A cutesy robot found on the side of the road is nothing at all like an actual human being.
Take a look at the photo to the right. At first, the image seems to express a young woman's acceptance of a strange situation and her willingness to participate and assist. It screams, "go humans! What kind compassionate and helpful creatures we are!" Unfortunately, the truth is, that she's "helping" a dressed up five gallon bucket with a solar panel and a handful of voice commands programmed into a smart phone. It's sad to say, but this lovely twenty-something wouldn't be caught dead with her arm around an actual hitchhiker or stranger. The chances that this young woman would offer a ride or assistance of any sort to an actual hitchhiker are, unfortunately, nearly zero.
Fortunately, unlike robots, a man can dream.
It's not all bad news, however. Similarly to how hitchBOT's apparent ability to charm young ladies with the wink of his LED eyes is characteristic of nothing besides a human interacting with a robot, the same logic applies to hitchBOT's dismemberment. It's all too easy to add hitchBOT's story into the collective hitch hiking mythology. That is to say, if you hitch you're bound to get chopped up into tiny pieces and left to rot in some dark and scary corner of the world.* This isn't the case, and hitchBOT's destruction represents nothing more than a robot being destroyed in Philadelphia. It's actually nearly impossible to even fathom any Philadelphians tearing an actual human being limb by limb and leaving them in a dark alleyway.
And so we can rest easy. While the everyday traveler might not be able to pick up women as easily as our robot counterpart, we're also far less likely to have our arms ripped off.
Interesting, quirky, funny, and certainly a little bit sad, it's hard to determine the meaning of hitchBOT's journey and ultimate destruction. Perhaps what is most notable is this final point.
Even in the year 2015, with all of our modern complexities, stresses, and personal concerns, a simple robot made from a five gallon pail can still manage to capture the hearts and the minds of the entire world.
* Oddly enough, the exact same fate (bodily dismemberment) seemingly awaits those who pick up hitch hikers, which, if anyone really sat and thought about is absolutely absurd. These beliefs imply that in every hitch hiking episode both the hitch hiker and the driver presumably square off in a deranged battle to kill, rape, and mutilate the other person.