“I still can’t believe those bastards in Philly…”
The robot sat across from me, a pained expression etched in his face. His gaze focuses generally on nothing as the events of the past few weeks continue to dominate his thoughts. He raises his eyes up to me, and you can clearly see a spark of anger.
“Just look at me… I’m no threat to anyone! Why would someone want to do this? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
He looks back down at his cigarette for a moment, then leans back and takes a long, slow drag. As the smoke engulfs his head, you could tell that his understanding of humans just isn’t computing.
hitchBOT is a robot from Port Credit, Ontario. He started out the creation of Frauke Zeller, a professor at Ryerson University. hitchBOT quickly realized that he was not suited for academic life. Professor Zeller suggested that hitchBOT spend some time away from the University. Knowing that the real world would be much tougher, the professor thought it would be a good learning experience.
“The professor suggested that I try hitchhiking across Canada. Of course, I protested. I’m made of a beer bucket and pool noodles, for crying out loud! I don’t have any actuators or gears — how the heck am I going to hitchhike? Well, he didn’t want to hear it. The professor would simply respond, ‘This is a social experiment. Usually, we are concerned whether humans can trust robots… this trip will address a deeper question: Can robots trust human beings?’”
The 26 days that hitchBOT spent hiking across Canada turned out to be some of the best days of his life. hitchBOT travelled from Halifax to Victoria, a 4000-mile journey. Of course, the start was the hardest part.
“I can’t deny it — I was terrified when the professor dropped me off in Halifax. I knew for certain that I would be there for days. However, it wasn’t long before a very nice couple offered me a ride. I thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.”
You could see some life starting to return to hitchBOT’s demeanor as he starting talking about the Canada trip. “Everyone was great. The people were very friendly and curious. Many folks already knew my name from the internet, and a couple of people actually came searching for me. And of course, everyone wanted to take my picture!”
You can’t help but get caught up in hitchBOT’s enthusiasm as he recalls his past adventures. In addition to hitchhiking across Canada, he’s also been to Europe — hitchhiking across Germany and then vacationing at several cultural sites in the Netherlands. The trademark hitchBOT optimism was in full display he started talking about plans for his trip to the United States.
“I wanted to do something different for the U.S. trip. I had so many friends on the internet, so I asked them where I should go. Together we came up with a ‘bucket list’ of places to go and things to see. We decided to start in Salem, Massachusetts, and by the time we got there, everything was ready to go. I was really optimistic that my friends would be there for me.”
And for the first two weeks, it looked like hitchBOT was going to have another great adventure. With the help of all of his friends, hitchBOT quickly checked off two items on his bucket list — do a wave at a sports game (BTW — Fenway Park), and see the lights at Times Square. Everywhere he went, hitchBOT was treated like a celebrity. He recalled many stops on the trip, but you could see the pain return as he starting talking about Philadelphia.
“My visit to Philadelphia started out just like all the other cities I visited. Many of the people knew me, some didn’t — they were all very friendly. I learned that they call Philadelphia the ‘City of Brotherly Love.’ Who would have ever thought…”
hitchBOT’s voice trailed off as he recalled those last moments. No one really knows what happened. The last images of hitchBOT are from a video blogger on Friday night, July 31. The next day, hitchBOT was found in pieces, vandalized and destroyed. Some of hitchBOT’s friends recovered the remains and returned him back to his home.
hitchBOT is currently resting at his home in Canada, still trying to come to grips with the events south of the border. His future plans aren’t finalized, but it’s possible he could return to Philadelphia and continue his trip.
“I would love to get back on the road. In general, I love people. They are usually so nice and curious. Most people really want to help. Being who I am, I guess there was always a chance that something like Philadelphia would happen. But considering how many people were out there taking care of me, I didn’t really believe it to be true.”
hitchBOT’s gaze shifts to a fleeting memory far off on the horizon. He takes another puff on his cigarette and shifts in his chair, a physical reaction to the discomfort of his new reality.
“You know, no matter how much we deny it, it’s still going to be true.” he finally says. “Sometimes bad things happen to good robots.”
For more information on hitchBOT’s journeys, visit hitchbot.me.