Unmanned systems are performing more and more important functions. Robots are active in IED detection, farming, surveillance, medicine, elder care, and hitchhiking.
That last one is a bit of mystery to me. What is the “important function” of a hitchhiking unmanned system? To tell tedious, pointless stories on long, boring trips? Crash on your couch? Hit you up for a handout?
Evidently, hitchBOT is some kind of social experiment that explores human-robot interactions. A relatively simple machine, it has a GPS tracker, a camera that takes a picture every 20 minutes, and the capability for simple conversation. It has successfully traveled through Germany and Netherlands, as well as from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
However, when it got to the US, foul play ensured. Despite the claims put forward in a fake video, culprits are unknown.
The fact that someone thought it would be fun that to vandalize an innocuous robot should not be too great a surprise. After all, there are numerous stories of soldiers becoming attached to their Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV). UGVs are given names, accorded rank, nominated for medals, taken fishing, and even rescued at great risk to their human companions. If robots can be objects of affection, why not hostility?
In fact, hitchBOT’s experience is consistent with a Japanese experiment in which children attacked a UGV in a mall. The robot in the Japanese experiment was able to successfully learn avoidance behaviors that decreased its chances of abuse.
There is some speculation that the violence inflicted by the children reflected stages of moral development as well as their attitudes towards animated non-living objects (as someone who has taught third grade, I can testify that children are perfectly willing to kick and hit living adults as well as robots).
Lest you think all of humanity is a reservoir of unredeemable hostility, the creators of the hitchBOT has been inundated with messages of sympathy as well as offers of support for a rebuilt version. Whether the hitchBOT will once again roam the highways has yet to be determined.
To learn more about the hitchBOT, watch the video below.