The team behind hitchBot, the talking, tweeting, hitchhiking robot that tries to traverse continents on the kindness of strangers, had always thought of their project as a social experiment. After all the bad press and post-apocalyptic stories that questioned whether humans could ever trust robots, they wanted to pose the opposite problem: Can robots trust humans?
This weekend they got their answer. Robots can’t rely on us. Or at least, not Philadelphians.
The endearing droid that had thumbed its way across Germany, vacationed in the Netherlands and made the improbable 3,600-mile trek across Canada without incident survived just over two weeks and 300 miles in the United States. On Saturday, its creators announced that hitchBot had been vandalized beyond repair and abandoned on a street in Philadelphia.
“Sometimes bad things happen to good robots!” hitchBot philosophized on Twitter, peculiarly chipper for a creature that had just been stripped of its arms. “My trip must come to an end for now, but my love for humans will never fade.”
According to the Associated Press, the robot’s creators were sent a photo of their vandalized robot collapsed among trash and dead leaves on the Philadelphia pavement, its pool noodle arms ripped from its beer bucket torso, its plastic cake saver skull and robot brain nowhere in sight. They decided not to share the image because it might be upsetting to some viewers.
Boston WBZ-TV assignment editor Andrea Courtois had no such qualms. She tweeted a photo of the ugly scene (the bot’s creators confirmed to BuzzFeed that the image is the same one they received).
HitchBot’s Canadian team can’t track their creation down because its battery is dead, they told the AP.
On their Web site they added that they hope to have more information about the damaged droid by Wednesday. They don’t know who destroyed it or why and are not interested in investigating the incident or pressing charges. For now, they are focusing on the question, “What can be learned from this?”
Twitter has a few suggestions, none of which casts the United States in a particularly flattering light.
Still, the robot’s creators want to focus on the good times. After all, hitchBot had two full weeks of fun before meeting its tragic end.
The endearing little droid started its journey on a road in Marblehead, Mass., on July 17, its rubber-gloved thumb raised skyward, a strip of tape across its solar panel-plastered body reading “San Francisco or bust!” The robot was immobile, which means it relied on the kindness of strangers to help it get from place to place.
It took an hour and a half for hitchBot’s first ride to pull over.
When its first friends had carried the hitchBot as far as they could take it, they dropped it off for the next person to find. The toddler-sized robot made for an agreeable travel companion. Equipped with a GPS tracker and a camera, it dutifully chronicled each step of its journey and was programmed to snap a photo of what was going on around it every 20 minutes (though the team behind the robot sought permission from the people in the photos before posting them online).
The bot also sang, danced, tossed out trivia and talked — sometimes incessantly.
“It can be quite chatty,” co-creator Frauke Zeller told Boston Magazine last month, before her creation’s tragic demise. “Sometimes it’s a little annoying, and it doesn’t shut up, but you can tell it to be quiet.”
After leaving Marblehead, hitchBot snagged a boat ride around Gloucester, a ticket to a Red Sox game and several tours of Boston landmarks. It even found a friend of its own kind:
By July 28, hitchBot had made it to New York, the first of several stops on its U.S. bucket list.
Then, just after midnight on Aug. 1, the night of the crime in question, hitchBot was picked up by YouTube celebrity Jesse Wellens, who posted a video with the little guy.
“Hitchbot, do you need a seat belt?,” Wellens asked in the video.
The robot’s red LED smile contracted, then reappeared
“Yes,” it responded in a tinny robot voice, eliciting a chuckle from Wellens.
The hitchBot showed its snarky side that evening as well. When a friend of Wellens asked the robot to ride in the trunk, it asked, “Why? So you can insult me again?”
Minutes later the robot was sitting in the back seat, seat belt buckled.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Wellens tweeted that he was going to drop the droid off at historic Elfreths Ally, often said to be the oldest residential street in America. A map that tracks hitchBot’s movements confirms that the bot made it there.
But aside from the gory photo of their apparently decapitated creation, Team hitchBot hasn’t heard from their creation since.
“Sadly, sadly it’s come to an end,” Zeller told the AP.