Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
  2. /
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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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: