I’m not sure what to make of this. Researchers in Port Credit, Ontario created a “robot” based on the Flat Stanley principle and turned it loose about a year ago. Like Flat Stanley, HitchBOT required strangers to pick it up and transport it to a new destination. Like Flat Stanley, people took their pictures with it at interesting events and people wrote about their experiences travelling with it.
HitchBOT travelled more than 6000 miles across Canada, visited Germany and the Netherlands then began it’s journey across the United States with the goal of reaching San Francisco one day. The robot was built to help researchers answer the question “can robots trust humans?” Brigitte Deger-Smylie (Moynihan, 8/4/2015), a project manager for the HitchBOT experiment at Toronto’s Ryerson University says they knew the robot could become damaged and had plans for “family members” to repair it if needed.
The three foot tall, 25 pound robot was a robot in name only as it was literally built out of buckets with pool noodles for arms and legs. Because of privacy concerns, the machine did not have any real-time surveillance abilities. It could however respond to verbal input and take pictures which it could post to it’s social media site along with GPS coordinates. Researchers could not operate the camera remotely.
Starting July 16, HitchBOT travelled through Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. When it reached Philadelphia though, it was decapitated and left on the side of the road on August 1st. Knowing how attached people get to objects which have faces, I wonder how the person who dropped it off last feels, knowing they were the last to interact with it. As a tester, I wonder how HitchBOT responded to being damaged since it had as least rudimentary speech processing abilities.
The researchers say there are several ways of looking at the “decapitation.” One way is to think, “of course this happened, people are awful.” Another way is to think, “Americans are obnoxious, so of course it happened here.” Or worse, “of course this happened in Philly, where fans once lashed out at Santa Claus.” The project team suggests that the problem is an isolated incident involving “one jerk” and that we should concentrate on the distance the machine got and the number of “bucket list” items it was able to complete before it was destroyed. Deger-Smylie (ibid) says the team learned a lot about how humans interact with robots in non-restricted, non-observed ways which were “overwhelmingly positive.”
This makes me wonder. Will it be a “hate crime” to destroy robots one day? Will protesters picket offices where chips are transplanted, effectively changing the robot from one “being” to another? If the robot hurts a human, will they all be recalled for retraining? Where do we draw the line between what is “alive” and what is not? Does that question even mean anything? Sherry Turkel at MIT is researching how “alive” robots have to be to be a companion. I read a fascinating scifi novel back in the day called “Flight of the Dragonfly.” In it, a starship had a variety of AI personalities to help the crew maintain their sanity. The ship was damaged at one point and the crew had to abandon it, but was afraid to leave the injured ship on its own to die. The ship reminded the crew that the devices they used were all extensions of itself and that the different voices it used were just fictions to help the humans interact with it. How are these “fictions” going to play out with people who already name their cars?
In the meantime, the Hacktory, a Philly-based art collective is taking donations to rebuild the HitchBOT and send it back on the road.

Moyniham, T. (August 4, 2015) Parents of the decapitated HitchBOT say he will live on. Retrieved from