RIP: HitchBot

Equal parts art project and social media experiment, with a dash of backyard hackery “robotics” thrown in for good measure, hitchBot was an experiment in the kindness of strangers. That is, the kindness of strangers toward a beer bucket filled with a bunch of electronics with a cute LED smiley face.

The experiment came to a tragic end (vandalism, naturally) in Philadelphia PA, after travelling a month across Canada, ten days in Germany, and yet another month across the Netherlands. It survived two weeks in the USA, which is more than the cynics would have guessed, but a few Grand Canyons short of the American Dream.

Professors [David Smith] and [Frauke Zeller] built hitchBot to see how far cuteness and social media buzz could go. [Smith], a former hitchhiker himself, also wanted hitchBot to be a commentary on how society’s attitudes toward hitching and public trust have changed since the 70s. Would people would pick it up on the side of the street, plug it in to their own cigarette lighters, and maybe even take it to a baseball game? Judging by hitchBot’s Twitter feed, the answer was yes. And for that, little bucket, we salute you!

But this is Hackaday, and we don’t pull punches, even for the recently deceased. It’s not clear how much “bot” there was in hitchBot. It looks like it had a GPS, batteries, and a solar cell. We can’t tell if it took its own pictures, but the photos on Twitter seem to be from another perspective. It had enough brains inside to read out Wikipedia entries and do some rudimentary voice recognition tasks, so it was a step up from Tweenbots but was still reassuringly non-Terminator.

Instead, hitchBot had more digital marketing mavens and social media savants on its payroll than [Miley Cyrus] and got tons of press coverage, which seems to have been part of the point from the very start. And by writing this blog post, we’re playing right into [Smith] and [Zeller]’s plan. If you make a robot / art project cute enough to win the hearts of many, they might just rebuild it. [Margaret Atwood] has even suggested on Twitter that people might crowdfund-up a hitchBot 2.0.

Our suggestion? Open-source the build plans, and let thousands of hitchBots take its place.

57 thoughts on “RIP: HitchBot

  1. It’s seems pretty straight forward to me, in terms of construction and capability. And since I’m essentially a monkey with a soldering iron in comparison to most of the Hackaday community, I’m sure an OpenHitchbot isn’t too out of the realm of possibility. Altho, I’d add GSM and give it the ability to transmit updates on status and location, also add a clearly marked front facing camera, and maybe a shock event in the programming that fires off a series of shots so we can get a look at the vandals next time…

    1. Apes share a common ancestor with monkeys, and can be shown through taxonomy that apes are a type of monkey. Keep in mind that such cited research is still upsetting to those who wish they weren’t a type of primate. However, it is strangely cathartic… when one realizes 7 billion monkeys create the modern world.

      I would wager HitchBot hints at how society may treat their own vulnerable individuals.

    2. Hitchbot had GPS and cellular connection so they can trace it, they can’t find it now because the battery is ‘dead’ disconnected/in pieces or whatever actually happened.

    1. Touche! Was trying to think it through: plastic, metal, no glass, hazardous battery to the Wertstoffhof…

      It’s easier to just drive it wherever it wants to go.

  2. Actually, it appears that the vandal was caught on surveillance footage stomping the poor robot into pieces. Here’s hoping that the internet detectives will figure out his identity and publicly shame him for his robot hate crime.

      1. I doubt it. Legally the bot would probably be considered lost or abandon, in which case the finder could claim it was legally theirs. In that case smashing it to bits would be perfectly legally. If the case went to trial the prep might get disorderly conduct, but that seems unlikely. Best we can do is publicly shame them.

          1. They might not consider it legally lost, abandoned perhaps, or they might consider the owners to be littering.
            Still, surviving two weeks in the US is surprising. Aside from vandals, I would have also placed odds that the police would have called in the bomb squad and detonated it. Reminds me of a scare over a viral marketing campaign involving a cartoon and randomly placed LED signs..

  3. leaving a bucket of flashing lights on the side of the street the only surprise is that the authorities didn’t get there first with a controlled demolition
    I don’t think you can claim destruction of property, it’s essentially abandoned isn’t it? You can’t leave something out in public on purpose and expect it to stay there. Even leave your car long enough and the government scoop it up and out of there. Get caught leaving a mattress at the side of the road and you get a fine. Maybe that’s the solution, glue a few LEDs on to garbage bags and paint them silver then tell people you are trying to get it to the other side of the country.

  4. Just another stupid foo foo art project – the deconstruction of the so called “robot” was as much art as the original robot.

    Maybe the NEA will fund another struggling artist (aka “thug”) to destroy Hitchbot 2.0.

  5. If a Hitchbot 2 is built, they should try the experiment in a normal Third World country like Zimbabwe. If it makes the mission, that’ll speak volumes about THIS Third World country trying to pass itself off as “developed”. That Hitchbot 1 lasted this LONG is barely short of a miracle.

  6. Arguably crowdfunding + open sourcing hitchbot will lead to the terminators of movies old. We could setup a vMPLS network with all of the hitchbots’ cellular connections and give them hive-mind. SkyNet here we come!

  7. Two comments.

    1. Way to keep it class Filthadeplhia.

    2. Everybody is up in arms over drones and gonna shoot them out of the air… yet you put a cute face on it, some blinky lights and leave it on the side of the road, and you will invite it inside you house. WTF is wrong with you?

  8. Probably died during Stars End, Saturday night Sunday morning WXPN. It was in bot heaven and went out on the stream.

    The story was on NPR’s ATC today, pieces have been recovered and it will be reassembled by a hackerspace as reported on the news story.

  9. This is why Americans can not have nice things. Maybe if it was a bible, and spouted bible verses, and helped spread creationism or some other bullshit. Maybe it could oppress women and minorites, then it would be appreciated by Americans.

    1. Maybe if it was abortion tights and anti your view, or wait maybe if it was #blacklivesmatter. Oh wait none of that matters, just your expression of the first amendment does. Keep that in mind before you speak they have rights too

  10. Americans cover the full spectrum of dreams and fears. There is nothing remotely resembling unity, for better or worse. The problem is, for every American who loves something there will be more who hate it. And that hatred drives some to most uncivil acts.

    1. It has been observed that individuals needing help will more likely be ignored in larger crowds.
      Additionally, it has also been proven that heavily monitored societies like the UK do not have less crime.

      However, people are less likely to argue with illogical idealisms due to well know psychological phenomena: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_control
      Example: History has shown US presidents tend to stay elected during times of war.

  11. I love all the people bleating about how this country is degenerate and full of terrible people, when a very similar experiment in a different area had a 100% survival rate. It’s almost like people are different, and both bad and good things happen every day!

    Though experiment:
    Assume that 98% of people are decent. Assume also that the assholes are stationary–you have to stumble on them, rather than the other way around–and that they’re evenly and randomly distributed. Given a city of 1.5 million people that covers 141.6 sq mi:
    -how far would you have to travel before you have a greater than 90% chance of coming within a block’s distance of at least one asshole?
    -how many non-assholes would you come across during the same period, assuming decent people are also randomly distributed?

  12. When I build my robot army I’m totally going to invade Philly first :-)

    Good on the Philly hacker community for stepping up. If it had happened in Seattle I would have totally jumped on the chance to help rebuild him. As a social experiment this is getting more and more interesting.

    Lastly, this isn’t just an American phenomenon – it wasn’t American’s that wiped out the dodos iirc. Small defenseless things will always get destroyed eventually – this is why Bill Gates said that maybe it’s not such a good idea for us to keep broadcasting our existence out into space.

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