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HitchBOT: When Bad Things Happen To Good Robots

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A bad thing has happened to a good robot. Over the weekend, the creators of hitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot, tweeted a disturbing photo taken on a narrow Philadelphia street.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It shows the robot in pieces, its plastic head and blue pool-noodle arms torn from its bucket-shaped body.

FRAUKE ZELLER: I was profoundly surprised, and then when I saw that image, I was upset. It's an upsetting image. And of course one wonders, what happened here - why?

CORNISH: Frauke Zeller is one of the creators of hitchBOT. It was part of a social experiment launched last year to learn more about how people and robots can interact.

BLOCK: HitchBOT was built to look nonthreatening. It seemed to be made of spare parts and it was the size of a small child.

CORNISH: And it needed help. People had to pick it up, strap it into their vehicles and plug its power cord into a cigarette lighter.

HITCHBOT: Would you like to have a conversation?

BLOCK: They could talk with it and take pictures with it. On Instagram, hitchBOT can be seen pumping gas, operating a plane and taking a boat ride.

CORNISH: The robot had successfully traveled through Europe and Canada, but it only lasted two weeks in the U.S. before it was vandalized in Philadelphia.

BLOCK: As disappointed as the hitchBOT team is, Frauke Zeller says they don't want this one nasty act to overshadow all of the joy that hitchBOT brought.

ZELLER: When we are around with hitchBOT, we see just how people smile when they see it, that it brings a smile on people's face. And then they come and ask, and what is this, you know? Or, oh isn't that the hitchhiking robot?

CORNISH: HitchBOT's team is considering what's next for the project. In the meantime, a Philadelphia tech group known as The Hacktory has offered to help the team rebuild the robot.

BLOCK: Now, that's the city of brotherly love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.