HitchBOT vandalized in Philadelphia, fans outraged worldwide

Even though hitchBOT's U.S. tour was cut short by vandalism, the celebrity status of the globe-trotting social media darling remains strong.

Ontario-made hitchhiking robot damaged in Philadelphia during U.S. tour

Hitchbot's parents talk about their loss


6 years ago
Frauke Zeller and David Smith talk about what went right and finally wrong with their creation and indicate a new hope. Hitchbot's death may have been greatly exaggerated 4:27

Even though hitchBOT's U.S. tour was cut short by vandalism, the celebrity status of the selfie-loving social media darling remains strong.

Hundreds of people expressed their outrage on social media after learning that the body of the adorable robot was damaged in Philadelphia, two weeks into its attempted trip to cross the U.S. 

The Ontario-made robot was damaged while waiting for its next ride, said David Smith, a McMaster University professor and co-creator of hitchBOT. Some of the robot's parts were stripped out.

"The head, as far as we know, is missing," Smith told CBC News.

The last people who picked up hitchBOT were YouTube star Jesse Wellens, whose channel featuring prank videos has more than eight million subscribers, and his buddy Ed Bassmaster. The bot was last seen near Elfreth's Alley and 2nd Street, where the duo dropped it off, according to hitchBOT's live map. 

Some of the robot's followers went to the area to retrieve the remains after the incident, and its "brain" containing the software is still intact, Smith said. His team is now arranging for the parts to be shipped back to Canada to determine the next step of the experiment.

The brainchild of a team of Canadian researchers, hitchBOT is a "social robot" designed to study how humans interact with robots. 

The child-sized robot is made of materials that appear to be quickly cobbled together: a bucket for its torso, garden gloves to cover up its hitchhiking hands, and pool noodles tucked into a pair of bright yellow rubber boots. It's also equipped with a camera, a microphone and a speaker system, allowing it to interact with those who pick it up. Other features include 3G, WiFi, GPS and LED screen. 

Globetrotting adventure interrupted

Despite the impressive tech specs, HitchBOT is immobile on its own; instead, it uses its anthropomorphic charisma to charm travellers into giving it a ride. In summer 2014, hitchBOT travelled across Canada from Halifax to Victoria. In February, it successfully completed a similar trip in Germany, followed by a vacation in the Netherlands in June. Its U.S. trip began in Boston on July 17 with a goal of hitchhiking to San Francisco. 

The robot has had a warm reception in the U.S., and the interruption came as a surprise to the team, Smith said.

"It was at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

HitchBOT's sudden demise was particularly difficult for its younger fans, Smith said.

"We want to let them know that a robot is not entirely like a person. Unlike people, robots can be rebuilt," he said.

Despite the social media outrage, Smith said hitchBOT's team will not be wasting their time on finding the culprit.

"We are not in the business of blame," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."

Fans from Hamilton, the rest of Canada and across the world, however, were left heartbroken.

While some are calling for the unknown assailant(s) to be held accountable...

...others are already declaring "war" on our neighbour south of the border. 


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