The hitchBOT Tragedy


Sometimes, I am really embarrassed to be from the United States. For the most part I love my country, and I love the ideals that my country was founded on and the principles that are at the core, but it’s stories like the one below that makes me sad to be an American. This particular story is about a traveling robot name hitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot.

A bunch of really nice humans had already helped hitchBOT traverse the length of Canada and most of Germany, the robot was going to try to make it from Massachusetts all the way to California. HitchBOT is the brainchild of two Canadian social scientists. As Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith explained it in a piece for the Harvard Business Review, it was an experiment meant to spark a discussion “about trust, notions of safety, and about our attitude towards technology.”

For his third trip, hitchBOT, a cute robot with kitsch appeal — made of a bucket, a display and noodle appendages — was dropped off at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., on July 17. The first few days, things went smoothly: With the help of friendly humans, who gave hitchBOT a ride and also charged him, he hit up Fenway Park and Providence and New Haven and even crossed off the first item on his bucket list: “See the lights in Times Square.”

Eventually, he made it to Philadelphia, where Jesse Wellens, of YouTube fame, showed him around town in the early morning hours of Saturday. At 3:57 a.m. ET on Saturday, Wellens tweeted that he was dropping hitchBOT off at Elfreths Ally, the oldest residential street in the U.S. Unfortunately, that’s where hitchBOT’s journey ended.

On his blog, the robot wrote that his body was damaged but “my love for humans will never fade.”

HitchBOT’s family — aka the researchers — issued this statement:

“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.”

In an interview with the CBC back in March, Smith said he hoped hitchBOT’s journey would lead to some introspection on the way society works. Maybe, he said, it could spark discussion on some big questions like: “What kind of people are we? Are we kind? Do we live in a safe world, you know, for the most part?”. Which leaves me with one question: What does this say about the U.S.?

Sadly, I think it says awful things about the United States. The robot went unharmed across Canada and much of Germany, but after being in the United States for a few weeks, hitchBOT was vandalized. Really, what kind of people do that. I’m afraid more and more, the United States is filled with hate and meanness. Just look at how Donald Trump is doing in the polls. The meaner more hateful he gets the higher his numbers climb. How can people really want that type of person to lead our country? Yes, he speaks his mind, and yes, he doesn’t mind speaking the truth about himself, but it just goes to show how Americans are fascinated by a culture of rudeness and disrespect.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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