A social media experiment to determine whether robots can trust humans ended abruptly on Saturday when hitchBOT was found dismembered.
Two weeks after setting out from Boston in an effort to reach San Francisco through the kindness of strangers, hitchBot met with the contempt of vandals. Over the weekend, the hitchhiking robot had its arms severed in Philadelphia, sometimes referred to as the city of brotherly love.
Through the robot's Twitter account, the machine's creators said, "Oh dear, my body was damaged, but I live on with all my friends. Sometimes bad things happen to good robots!"
Andrea Courtois, assignment editor for Boston's WBZ-TV, posted a picture of hitchBOT's corpse on her Twitter feed.
Though not visible in the picture posted by Courtois, hitchBOT had been adorned with a piece of tape summarizing its commitment to its journey. It read: "San Francisco or bust."
As if to amplify the irony, leading scientists last week published an open letter warning that robots and artificial intelligence represent a potential threat to humanity.
The unknown perpetrators of the crime won't have to worry about being arrested. A note posted to the hitchBOT website says, "We have no interest in pressing charges or finding the people who vandalized hitchBOT; we wish to remember the good times, and we encourage hitchBOT's friends and fans to do the same."
Conceived by David Harris Smith, an assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, hitchBOT represented an effort to explore human-robot relations beyond the laboratory.
No one from the hitchBOT team was immediately available for comment, a spokesperson for Ryerson University told InformationWeek in an email.
Unable to move on its own, hitchBot was designed to hitchhike, offering social interaction in exchange for transit. It had already successfully completed journeys across the Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. The robot's travels have been documented online.
In terms of crimes per capita, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands rank No. 10, No. 11, and No. 9 respectively, compared to the US at No. 22, according to NationMaster, which relies on 2002 UN data.
In a 2012 New York Times article, Ginger Strand, author of the book Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, argued that that hitchhiking has been made safer by connectivity and social media.