Over the last few days, various news outlets have been engrossed with the story of Hitchbot, a hitchhiking robot built as a social experiment. Hitchbot, which could converse using a chatbot type AI programme, and move it’s arms to thumb down a lift, but was otherwise immobile, was designed to travel across long distances with the help of the random strangers who encountered it. Hitchbot was equipped with 3G, GPS and a camera, and would post to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, creating a detailed visual narrative. The depth of the Hitchbot persona was pretty impressive, it’s official website and even press releases were written from the robot’s perspective.
Hitchbot’s current fame comes from it’s tragic end, shortly into it’s third journey, this time across the United States (previously it had traversed Canada and Germany) it was apparently vandalised and as far as I can tell, has not been recovered by it’s owners.
I believe part of Hitchbot’s appeal lay not just in it’s ability to converse with people or it’s adorably DIY-style design, but in it’s social media aspect. People love to be part of a bigger project, especially something that little bit quirky and fun, and there was no shortage of people willing to pose with Hitchbot in famous or unusual places – Hitchbot even had a bucket list of places to encourage it’s new-found friends to take it somewhere new. Hitchbot’s was created to study robot-human interaction and test speech interaction, but the interactions Hitchbot managed to generate with people it had never met are just as fascinating. Each of it’s social media accounts have thousands of followers celebrating it’s journey, sending it best wishes and hoping to meet it, in a wave of collective positivity sadly marred by it’s ending, with some claiming that the vandalism was a merely stunt or a hoax, and others inevitably mocking anyone expressing sadness. The people behind Hitchbot clearly understood people’s affection for their robot, and wrote a careful farewell post, refusing to dwell on the vandalism so as not to upset any children who were fans.
There’s definitely something that people love about fictional online personas – there are twitter accounts out there from famous film characters to one of my personal favourites, a Roomba suffering from moments of existential dread (obviously robots are a popular choice!) So an online persona with a real, physical being (albeit one mostly made of plastic) behind it was perhaps always going to be a huge hit.
The last post from Hitchbot’s creators has suggested that this is a social experiment they would like to continue, so I guess whether the original robot’s sucess was a novelty or whether people will flock to a successor in the same way remains to be seen.