Modern Hitchhiking

Robot Hitchhiking is Dead

Or is it? The Canadians that first led HitchBOT by the rubber hand out into the world, announced he may one day hit the streets again. This came as a relief for Americans, shouldered with the shame of HitchBOT’s beheading on home turf. And for everyone else, the news renews hope again for humanity (and robots.)

Most people hadn’t heard of HitchBOT until after HitchBOT was murdered. Fair enough. But as soon as we’ve decided to care, the robot’s biography’s already half written, and the history of this digitial stranger has made waves- not just ripples.

The experiment was simple. Engineer a Wikipedia factoid genius. Give it the body of a beer-bucket, attach foam arms and drop it off on the roadside to hitchhike across Canada. Collect data from HitchBOT’s attached camera and the testimony of thousands who’d encounter the robot that needed a ride. Hypothesize: can robots trust humans?

I just don’t think its fair to hypothesize, now, in the wake of HitchBOT’s murder, that robots can’t trust humans. It’s a negative opinion scraped from sad headlines instead of understanding the whole story. HitchBOT made it across North America without (ahem) a hitch. HitchBOT made it across Germany. HitchBOT didn’t make it far in America, but so what? Luck runs out. Blaming people is easy. So is blaming hitchhiking for being dangerous.

Hitchhiking was a useful adventure and a relevant mode of transportation in the pre-digital age. Now it’s relegated to fantasy (and idiocy.) Thumbs up signifies good job and good job only. Why is this?

It takes a village. You’ve got a car, I need a ride. You found me on the side of the road and you’ve got an extra seat. Oh yeah, I even have gas money. God forbid, you’re lonely and well, dangerous.

The funny thing is, hitchhiking has made a dazzling reappearance. It’s called Uber and its not that different than taxicabs (no one’s calling you crazy for relying on those.) People still hitch rides all the time and today, sticking your thumb out on Facebook is fundamentally the same as doing it on the roadside. Tell me all about reviews and the added safety of being tracked on your GPS and blah blah blah. The fact is we still depend on one another for things. And throw currency in the mix, tell me all about the costs of a ride and I’ll say the same thing. Stripped down, it’s the same pure form of barter, trade and exchange. Why did hitchhiking get such a bad rep for all these decades? Jack Kerouac would be, and Tom Robbins probably is, ashamed.

Back to HitchBOT. It’s too bad this robot had to get caught up in the glory and horror of hitchhiking. HitchBOT died near a park bench not on the open road. I don’t know if robots can trust humans but humans haven’t been able to trust humans for awhile now.








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