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hitchBOT: A Lesson in American Callousness?

“My love for humans will never fade.” That was the mantra of the adorable, three-foot-tall robot known as hitchBOT, which set out to travel the world by relying on the kindness of strangers. Armed with an outstretched thumb, a smiling LED face and written instructions for random passersby, he most recently aimed to make his way across the States, coast-to-coast, by hitching rides.

The bot had already successfully made it 10,000 kilometers across Canada, and had hugely successful tours across Germany and the Netherlands earlier in the year, where he was well received. And well-treated. So the US tour wasn’t his first rodeo.

The brainchild of David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University, hitchBOT was built to study how humans interact with robots in an uncontrolled environment. He was relatively self-sustainable: solar-powered, and could carry on conversations thanks to Cleverscript speech technology. With an onboard video camera and a deep well of positivity for humans, he shared his adventures with a host followers on Twitter and Facebook.

But there was just one catch: he couldn’t move on his own, and had no self-defense mechanisms.

hitchBOT kicked off the US tour well enough, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., on July 17, with a final destination of San Francisco's Exploratorium. Along the way he planned to stop in Times Square, New Orleans and Mount Rushmore, among other places, to seek out the best the United States had to offer him.

Apparently, what it ultimately had to offer was a vicious, heartless, senseless attack in the wee hours of Aug. 2. In Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love, no less—the outstretched, friend-seeking arms of hitchBOT were torn off and used in his demise, when a vandal kicked him violently to pieces, for no apparent reason.

He hadn’t even made it beyond the Eastern seaboard.

Details are scant. hitchBOT's social media accounts simply announced that the project had reached an end "for now." But Philadelphia video artist Jesse Wellens obtained surveillance footage showing a “male wearing a backwards baseball cap and Philadelphia Eagles jersey ripping off what looks like hitchBOT's foam arms, and repeatedly punching and stomping the robot,” according to a report.

So, the States proved to be his bete noire, and hitchBOT’s American Dream lasted less than a month. Is this an object lesson for any foreign traveler who might find themselves alone in a dark street in Philly? Does one lone jerk in a sea of 310 million people indicate anything other than the fact that, well, jerks exist? Let’s hope not. What it does show is that the usual fear of artificial intelligence and robots evolving into heartless overlords has a flip side. And that we have a lot of soul-searching to do, as a species.

“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,” Smith and Zeller said. “For now we will focus on the question ‘what can be learned from this?’ and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

Farewell for now, hitchBOT.  Apologies from this American that you ran aground on the rocky shores of human nature. But if the point is to learn more about ourselves, hitchBOT undeniably has served a real purpose.

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