Have you heard about the hitchhiking robot? Child-sized, it was one year old and had traveled through Canada (where it was born) and through Europe. Hitchbot travelled with a wish list of places it wanted to go and things it wanted to do. The catch is that it depended on people to pick it up and take it places, hence hitchhiking. People would pick up the little robot with its colorful rubber boots, LED eyes and computer voice, take it along with them for awhile, then pass it off to another person or leave it by a road to get its next ride.
Do you already know why I am speaking of it in the past tense? Because it was “killed”- vandalized, torn and beheaded in our own USA, on a Philadelphia street. I was exploring a news app on my phone and followed links that led me to surveillance footage showing the attack. Before 6:00 AM, on a Philadelphia street, we see a young man walking along. The robot is hidden from our view by a trash can. The young man stops to take a long look at it. Then he walks off on his way. A few minutes later he reappears from the other side of the street and crosses over directly in front of the robot. Again he studies it. It is early morning, quiet, no one else about, no cars going by. He raises his arm and brings it down. Then repeatedly. He pulls an arm off the robot and throws it down. He kicks and hits it some more and the other arm goes off. More kicking, using his whole body. Then he walks away.
There is no sound, just the sight of the young man. Not too tall, long shorts and sports team jersey, baseball cap backwards. Socks and sneakers. All so normal. It is upsetting to watch. And as a social experiment, it is disturbing. Of course we can’t attribute too much to one individual, one instance. But how can you help it? Through Canada and Europe, no one chose to take out destructive anger on an available piece of valuable, whimsical technology. But here, this young man walking the streets in the low light before dawn, did.
And I think many people, especially parents and teachers as myself, take this as a failure. We have failed this man, for him to harbor such anger and to use it in this aimless, senseless way. Of course, it is better that he didn’t shoot strangers or friends. The robot can take it. It doesn’t have a soul to extinguish.
Who was this man in first grade, I wonder? The child who stayed far off adult radar, trying to be inconspicuous? Or the child you couldn’t wait for the day to end so you could escape his outbursts and unkind actions toward others? Or the child who cried too easily and you suspected was bullied in the closet and playground and alley going home, but you could never pin it down? However it was, he didn’t get what he needed. And we all share in responsibility. Poor hitchbot, poorer human.