The Lessons of HitchBot

This past week, a story circulated around social media about how HitchBot, a friendly hitchhiking robot met a grisly end here in Philadelphia. When the news hit, all my techie friends rallied and vowed, “We can rebuild him.” Computer Science professors and teachers and a local MakerSpace all agreed to pitch in. Then came news that the demise of HitchBot might not have been true, that the surveillance video was created by a prankster. So no one quite knew what to believe.

Unfortunately, while the video was a fake, the robot was indeed destroyed, and the Canadian researchers who created him ended his journey. The researchers had set out to see if humans would treat robots with kindness. I guess the answer, at least for humans in the US, is no. Research on human-robot interaction is widespread as many futurists and computer scientists believe we’ll be interacting more and more with robots who might be taking on some of our routine tasks. We already have the prospect of self-driving cars on the horizon, and in Japan, they’re researching caregiving robots. It makes sense to figure out how to create robots in ways that we will want to interact with them productively and not, as in HitchBot’s case, destroy them.

To me, there are two lessons to take from the HitchBot story. One is that humans might treat robots just like humans, which is to say, we aren’t always kind and can be downright violent. The second lesson is that it pays to do some research on news stories. It was honestly really hard to tell what the real story was for many days. First, everyone thought it was real, then everyone thought it was fake and that the robot never existed, and then a clearer picture emerged that was more complex than the original story indicated. Social media often amplifies untruths and correcting a story might take a long time, if it happens at all. So before you click through to the story, check your sources. If it seems crazy, it probably is. And if you see a robot hitchhiking along the side of the road or resting on a park bench, give her a ride. You’ll be improving human-robot relations.