Does hitchBOT dream of electric sheep?

HitchBOT doing what he does best, hitching!

HitchBOT doing what he does best, hitching!

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.

If only hitch hiking worked like this!

If only hitch hiking worked like this!

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.

Clearly, this is not a human.

Clearly, this is not a human.

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.

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Written by Chris "Wolverine" Hillier.

I don't care for the towns. I don't care if it's Detroit, Berlin or San Juan and I've been to them all. The people in towns stink like soap and they foolishly compete against each other to get money to buy stuff they don't need. I'll go to the towns if necessary to get resupply and do my hiker chores. Otherwise, I'm happy being on the trail.

The paragraph above is how you start to think once you've been 'ruined'. I didn't use to think like that. I used to have a normal life. I had a career and a nice house. I wondered what kind of person could take 6 months out of their busy schedule to hike a stupid trail. Then my mom passed away and it rocked my world. I needed to get away. I needed to reset my brain and start over so I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.  Two weeks into that hike, it occurred to me: This is how I want to spend the rest of my life. From that point on, I was ruined.

I consider it an affliction. I'm stricken with wanderlust. I got the gypsy blood, the itchy feet... Whatever you want to call it. It manifests itself as a distinct change in attitude. You stop caring what other people think. You begin to judge others based solely on how many miles they've hiked. You long for the trail – it doesn't even matter what trail it is, as long as you're out of doors with a pack on your back and you're moving forward. This disease should be covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. We should get special parking. If only we owned cars.

To anyone considering hiking a long trail I would say this: Beware. You could be 'ruined'. You'll quit your job and give up all your possessions just for the chance to live the sweet sweet life of the long distance hiker. You'll be shocked when you finally notice how often those around you waste food and water. You'll see how most Americans are addicted to their automobiles. You'll feel out of place in normal society and you'll wonder why everyone else doesn't feel the same way you do.

Then again, you might not. Thousands of people hike the AT or the PCT and they aren't 'ruined'. They complete the hike and go back to a normal life but if you're one of those who's hiking gene has been lying dormant deep in your DNA since birth, you might activate it by going on a long distance hike.


Chris "Wolverine" Hillier lives below the poverty line and way off the grid.

Wolverine will soon be attempting to be the first person to thru-hike a yet-to-be-named trail from Belle Isle, Detroit across the Upper Peninsula and to the Wisconsin border. After that, he plans to hike at least another 1,000 miles. Take a look at or find him on Facebook as Hiker Resupply.

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Hiker Nation was founded based on the idea that we, as a community, needed a web-based resource with only the highest quality content and no subscription fees. We also believe that you, as an artist and outdoor enthusiast, need a place to display your work and gain recognition.