Destruction of world-traveling robot in Philly spurs theories, offers of help

During hitchBOT’s brief excursion in the U.S., the Canadian robot visited Boston, New York City and Niagara Falls, but the child-sized humanoid couldn’t get through Philadelphia without being destroyed.

As speculation grows over what stranger dismembered the robot created to study the kindness of strangers, hitchBOT’s designers are saying that support has been overwhelming.

Philadelphia has been the source of much of that support. Industrial engineers started a Philly Loves HitchBOT page to keep fans abreast of plans to revive the robot. Other champions of hitchBOT have launched a KickStarter page to raise funds for the bot’s reboot. 

Still, hitchBOT’s creators remain perplexed about what motivated someone to assault the robot with a smiling LED face on a bucket body and pool-noodle legs stuffed in bright yellow galoshes?

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“I was profoundly surprised. Then, when I saw that image, I was upset, it’s an upsetting image,” Frauke Zeller, co-creator of hitchBOT, told NPR’s All Things Considered. “Of course, one wonders what happened here? Why?”

Some are purporting to have answers.

Video blogger Jesse Wellens, who is known for prank YouTube videos that garner millions of views and was the last person to document an interaction with hitchBOT, has pointed to what he says is security camera footage of the robot’s destruction.

The black-and-white grainy video depicts a man in an Eagles jersey kicking something out of frame on the bench next to Elfreth’s Alley where hitchBOT is said to have been demolished over the weekend. Wellens said that something being stomped is hitchBOT, though skeptics have wondered if Wellens himself created the video. Wellens has denied this accusation.

Wellens has said he obtained the surveillance footage from a nearby resident, although the site of the footage is closer to businesses, not residents. And several employees of businesses around the bench outside of Elfreth’s Alley said no security camera is positioned to take footage from the angle portrayed in the video.

Other theories exist. Amanda Jackson, project manager at the marketing firm Grayson Sky across the street from Elfeth’s Alley, said the attacker was likely from out of town, but not too far out of town.

“It was probably someone who drinks vodka-Redbulls,” Jackson said. “Those are usually the guys coming in from Jersey.”

Many a late night reveler walks by Elfreth’s Alley on weekend night, Jackson said. If it were a random act, she said, drunken stupidity was likely the driver. “They probably didn’t realize what a cool thing they were destroying,” she said.

Philadelphia police said they have not received any reports of vandalism or any other complaints connected to the destruction of hitchBOT; therefore, there’s no open investigation into the droid’s fatal encounter. 

HitchBOT’s creators say some of the robot’s followers retrieved some of the bot’s remains after the incident and are arranging to send the parts back to Canada.

Researchers said one of the main questions they hope to be answered by the hitchhiking bot is: “Can robots trust human beings?”

David Smith, co-creator of hitchBOT, told the CBC that this one episode might not be enough to draw blanket conclusions about that question just yet.

“It was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

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