Metro

Vandals cut short robot’s hitchhiking adventure

A hitchhiking robot that left Marblehead last month to seek adventure crossing the country was cut down in its prime, its creators reported Sunday.

The robot, called hitchBOT, had covered a lot of ground since its July 17 departure, visiting Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and New York City. But on Saturday, while passing through Philadelphia, hitchBOT was vandalized.

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“Oh dear, my body was damaged,” the robot was quoted on the project’s website, www.hitchbot.me. “But I live on back home and with all my friends. I guess sometimes bad things happen to good robots!”

It was an ignoble halt to hitchBOT’s quest to reach San Francisco. The robot was designed as a social experiment by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Ryerson University in Toronto.

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“Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots…but this project takes it the other way around and asks: can robots trust human beings?” Frauke Zeller, one of the robot’s creators, asked.

Given Saturday’s events, it would seem not. Researchers declined to provide a photo of the robot’s injuries, saying they were “afraid to upset young fans.” However, they said hitchBOT would be repaired.

The genderless robot stands 3 feet tall, and weighs about 25 pounds. Made out of a minicomputer and circuit contained in a bucket, it looks like somebody “cobbled together odds and ends to make a robot,” said David Harris Smith, one of the robot’s creators.

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It has pool noodles for arms, a cake saver for a head, garden gloves for hands, and it wears bright yellow rain boots. But what it lacks in conventional beauty, it makes up for with brains. The robot has camera vision, a speaker system, GPS capabilities, world knowledge from Wikipedia, and speech recognition processing abilities.

In Boston, the robot hit many quintessential tourist spots. It took in a game at Fenway Park, visited the Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Public Garden, and watched street performers at Quincy Market.

Boston Globe reporter Christopher Muther took hitchBOT for a drive in Salem before it departed last month.

“It was very quirky,” Muther said in an interview Sunday. “It didn’t always understand what I was saying, but in a sweet and funny way. It was really cute.”

Muther said he was disappointed when he heard about the vandalism.

“It made me pretty angry,” he said. “Here this robot has been across Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands with no problem, but as soon as it gets to the United States it was destroyed.”

The robot’s “family” of creators do not plan to search for the vandals, according to a statement. “[We] want to focus on all of the good things that happened to hitchBOT,” researchers said in the statement.

Meanwhie, hitchBOT remained optimistic as it nursed its injuries Sunday.

“My trip must come to an end for now, but my love for humans will never fade,” it said on the website. “Thank you to all my friends.”

Below is reportedly a photo of a vandalized hitchBot

Jacqueline Tempera can be reached at jacqueline.tempera@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @jacktemp
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