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Group Offers To Help Revive HitchBOT That Was Vandalized In Philadelphia

As part of its U.S. travels, hitchBOT rode along with two boys who were heading to summer camp. But a week later, the robot was found to have been vandalized.
As part of its U.S. travels, hitchBOT rode along with two boys who were heading to summer camp. But a week later, the robot was found to have been vandalized.

The story of hitchBOT — the robot that had visited Europe and New York City, but couldn't make it out of Philadelphia in one piece — may not be over. A Philadelphia tech group is offering to rebuild the robot and hoping to repair their city's reputation.

A kid-sized robot that's built around a plastic bucket and sports a friendly LED face, hitchBOT had been on a mission to travel from Massachusetts to San Francisco, relying on the kindness of humans it meets along the way.

Those humans were supposed to provide rides and a little electricity — but this weekend, someone tore the robot apart and left its remains on the ground in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood. Photos from the scene show that its head — a glass container with an electronic screen — was missing.

It was a shocking turn in an experiment that Canadian researchers Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith, the team behind the bot, have said is about "trust, notions of safety, and about our attitude towards technology," as Eyder wrote for the Two-Way.

The U.S. experiment lasted a little more than two weeks; this weekend, the HitchBOT team , writing as the robot:

"Oh dear, my body was damaged, but I live on back home and with all my friends. I guess sometimes bad things happen to good robots! My trip must come to an end for now, but my love for humans will never fade. Thank you to all my friends."

The team, which calls itself hitchBOT's family, added, "We have no interest in pressing charges or finding the people who vandalized hitchBOT; we wish to remember the good times, and we encourage hitchBOT's friends and fans to do the same."

But to the idea that the robot's journey is ending, some folks in Philadelphia are saying, "No way!"

The Hacktory, a group of design and technology makers, says it wants the robot to continue its trip. They're asking hitchBOT's creators for their approval of the plan — and for a parts list to make repairs, if the robot is salvageable.

"We feel it's the least we can do to let everyone, especially the Robot community, know that Philly isn't so bad, it's got some really great stuff going on, and great people."

It's not clear whether their offer will be taken up: A publicist for the hitchBOT team says they're "still considering what is next for hitchBOT," and it's also possible that the robot can't be repaired.

If the robot can't be rebuilt, Hacktory says, it could create a new one. The group's Georgia Guthrie says via email, "If we had a little help to buy a tablet PC, or get one donated, and some of the other costlier components, we could probably get the bot back up and running in a week or two."

The robot's demise has spurred sadness, particularly among those who had been following the adventures of the robot that regularly posts photos and updates about its trip on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It had previously traveled across Canada and Germany.

As for the local reaction, Guthrie says, "among people who've spent time in Philly, it's mixed between resignation, like 'Philly's just a bad place, here's more proof,' and people who are like, 'No way, this isn't Philly, we gotta do something!' "

"We are definitely in the second camp," she says.

Kyle Silva, who was hitchBOT's guide in Rhode Island, says via Twitter that the robot is now back in Rhode Island, and that the research team "arranged for it to be sent back later on this week."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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