Philadelphia is the town where Santa Claus was once booed and pelted with snowballs at a professional football game, and where the Flyers of the 1970s terrorized the National Hockey League by beating opponents into submission with their fists.
So maybe the smashing reception that the City of Brotherly Love accorded hitchBOT – the Canadian-built robot/social experiment that successfully hitchhiked across Canada and Europe – should come as no surprise.
It's not known exactly how hitchBOT wound up broken in pieces in a Philly gutter, but what's clear is this: Its road trip is over. This turn of events has understandably saddened its creators at Ryerson and McMaster universities. More interestingly, the robot's untimely end touched all sorts of people with no involvement in the project.
There has been outrage, incredulity, sadness and no shortage of mournful pronouncements about basic decency. Much of the negative public reaction to hitchBOT's violent decommissioning has sounded like the emotional response to a human tragedy. The word "demise" is often used; somewhere along the way, hitchBOT became a "he", not merely an "it".
As a vehicle for an inquiry into the kindness of strangers, the little robot seems to have served its purpose. Its creators wanted to see whether we humans, used to having robots help us, might also help a robot. HitchBOT succeeded in travelling from coast to coast in Canada, and through parts of Europe, thanks to strangers. The question is: Why? Why did they give hitchBOT a ride? Curiosity? Boredom? Irony? Empathy?
There were, broadly, three impulses resulting from an encounter with hitchBOT: ignore (as most people did); play along (which a minority of folks did by picking it up); or destroy (all it took was one person).
What hitchBOT showed is that the vast majority of people fall into the first two camps, at least when it comes to encountering a vaguely humanoid, talking robot in need of a ride. In its own way, a machine brought people together – a fascinating development.
A crowdfunding campaign has been set up to fix hitchBOT and get it back on its way. Perhaps the social experiment isn't over yet. Either way, it's already a success.