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  1. Science & Tech
3 August 2015

Can robots trust humans? Not in America, apparently

hitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot created to investigate robot-human relations, has been decapitated in Philadelphia. 

By Barbara Speed

Almost exactly a year ago, a robot wearing rubber washing-up gloves and wellies set off on a road trip across Canada. The only catch? The robot had no means of transporting itself, except its one outstretched thumb, and a voicebox which would attempt to convince passersby to give it a ride.  

As Gizmag described it at the time, hitchBOT is a “science project, a social experiment, and an art installation”, all at once. The artificial intelligence which allows the robot to talk and tweet is impressive, but the real focus of the project is on how people respond to the robot, not how the robot communicates with people.

The project’s creators, Dr David Harris Smith and Dr Frauke Zeller, both have backgrounds in media and communication – Zeller’s doctoral thesis focused on human-robot interaction, while Smith is an Assistant Professor in McCaster University’s department of communication studies. 

Over the past year, the robot made its way across Canada via 19 different rides, then, in February, it travelled through Germany. It attended weddings in both countries. Its biggest trip yet, however, would be its American road trip, which began in mid-July in Maidenhead, Massachusetts.

hitchBOT planned to cross the whole country, live-blogging as it went and crossing off as many items on its USA bucket list as possible (for example: “VEGAS!” “Do the wave at a sports game”). But on Friday, around two weeks after its journey began, disaster struck: hitchBOT was found decapitated and missing an arm in Philadelphia.

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The robot’s creators released this statement over the weekend:

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.

The robot’s demise offers a rather pessimistic view of robot-human interactions – and of the safety of hitch-hiking, whether robotic or otherwise. Yet while hitchBOT was apparently damaged “beyond repair” in Philadelphia (its creators aren’t planning to press charges) the statement goes on to promise that “this great experiment is not over”. In fact, the robot’s last tweet makes clear that it bears no hard feelings toward humankind: