It was a story that I had heard about a couple of years ago and thought was pretty cool. Researchers in Canada were building a robot that was incapable of movement but, through usage of linguistic programming and some limited conversation skills, would be able to traverse long distances. How, you might ask? Through the kindness of the human race, which would transport the robot around for nothing. A GPS system would keep track of where it was and, at 20-minute intervals, would snap a photo of its surroundings.
Christened hitchBOT, the robot – a gangly looking creation that still had some charm to it (as you can see in the photo above) – was able to get across the expanse of Canada in 2014, a 3700-mile trip that saw hitchBOT endear itself to the Canadian people. Earlier this year, hitchBOT got much the same reception as it crossed the Netherlands and Germany without as much as a scratch on its metallic frame and no damage to its sensitive computer systems.
So what would happen if hitchBOT attempted to cross the United States? The result is a saddening thought on the human – or perhaps the U. S. – condition as it aims straight at the heart and ignorance of people in the U. S.
Starting in Boston two weeks ago, hitchBOT had slowly been able to work his way down the Eastern Seaboard, taking in a Boston Red Sox game (probably should have headed to Yankee Stadium to see a real team play) and other “events.” The goodwill ended for hitchBOT on Saturday, however, as hitchBOT was found decapitated outside of Philadelphia, its useless arms and legs ripped from its body (the appendages were added to give hitchBOT a more “human” appearance) and the “head” nowhere to be found. From photos of the scene on Sunday, hitchBOT looked no different than the trash that fills the gutters of a major U. S. city.
“Sadly, sadly it’s come to an end,” Frauke Zeller, one of the robot’s co-creators, told the Associated Press after learning of hitchBOT’s demise. Zeller hasn’t committed to rebuilding hitchBOT and taking another shot at the U. S., but it seems that others working on the project are at least open to the idea. In a note on hitchBOT’s website, they say, “Sometimes bad things happen to good robots. We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over.”
The better experiment might be how shitty is the United States that some jackass/es gets their jollies out of the destruction of something they don’t own?
Sure, there are other countries where hitchBOT might not have had a really good time either. Some of the more criminally active areas of South America or Africa probably would have sent hitchBOT back in pieces also. The Middle East would have been difficult, too, but the place is a fucking war zone; humans have trouble getting out of there in one piece literally, mentally and emotionally. But this happened in the United States, where we are supposedly so civilized that we are the GREATEST NATION ON EARTH!!!
There is a brilliant video clip from the HBO show The Newsroom where Jeff Daniels, playing a television anchor, is on a discussion forum at a university. After a coed asks what makes the U. S. the greatest country on Earth, Daniels’ character Will McAvoy rips into her with a three-minute diatribe that says the only things that the U. S. is Number One in is number of persons incarcerated in prison, the number of people who believe angels exist and military spending (all correct, by the way). He then laments that we used to be a country that did good things and for the right reasons, to the utter silence of the auditorium.
(Would have liked to have embedded the video of this clip here, but HBO seems to have stretched their tentacles out and removed that capability. You can find it on YouTube, however.)
We used to be a country where people could depend on each other despite their differences. We used to be a country where you could potentially even work your way across the U. S., doing small jobs to earn some cash before heading onto the next town. Up until probably the 1970s, people freely traversed the continent and seldom met with any issues. Now, we can’t even exit our doorways without a feeling of dread, wary of those we see and willing to destroy anything we don’t understand.
How many of us actually know who our neighbors are? How many would see someone from the subdivision they live in needing some help getting back home from the grocery store and offer a ride? As a nation we’ve cocooned ourselves to the point that we refuse human interaction, settling for a virtual version across smartphones and computers instead of the real thing.
The destruction of hitchBOT is an extension of this malady. When faced with something that we might not understand, we choose not to engage it. Worse yet, someone with a brain the size of a walnut thought it would be better to destroy the robot rather than just let it be. That’s right, U. S. citizens…we let the equivalent of the “flour bag baby” with a microchip die and it didn’t even reach the 30-day mark of the experiment.
I certainly hope that the researchers in Canada make another run at hitchBOT. Maybe hitchBOT II will have some defense mechanisms that will keep it better protected. Then people in the U. S. can stupidly complain about Canada using “militaristic robots” to invade the country.