Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Hitchbot is Dead. Long Live Humanity!

I made a vow to pick up every hitchhiker I  ever find after receiving a number of rides from strangers when I really needed it.

When I was 19 I drove with my brother and  a couple of friends up to Mount Desert Island in Maine to spend a week camping in Acadia National Park. Unfortunately our transmission fluid was leaking all twelve hours of our drive and the transmission died just outside the park. Fortunately, one friend had AAA which could tow our 1991 Toyota Camry the 40 miles to the nearest Toyota dealership to replace the transmission (Ka-ching!) and we broke down directly outside of a private campground. We were in Maine without a car for at least 5 days. It was only a few miles in to Bar Harbor, the town on Mount Desert Island, so the next day we decided to walk it. Not long after we started walking it started to pour. There was some debate about it before we did it, but not long after it began to pour we had our thumbs out. We were hitchhiking!

It was astonishing how easy it was to get rides on Mount Desert Island. My friends and I had met in a Philadelphia public high school which taught us geometry and street smarts in disproportion favoring the later. How was this happening? We explored a lot of the park and even went into town one evening expecting to get a ride out of town when we were ready to go back to our camp. We carried a notebook with us and scribbled our desired destinations in bold lettering on the pages counting on someone to take us there. AND THEY DID!

I didn’t hear about hitchBOT until he was “destroyed by Philadelphia” but when I learned about it I was equally ashamed and proud of my Philadelphia brethren. I have a soft spot in my heart for hitchhikers, even semi artificially intelligent hitchhiking robots, and I didn’t like the bad press that was being heaped on the city I love with loads of references to the irony that this could happen in the city of Brotherly Love.

The hitchBOT website reported:

“Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.  We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over. For now we will focus on the question “what can be learned from this?” and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

I was struck by the existential flare of the post. “Bad things happen to good robots” and “Explore future adventures for robots and humans.” It seems that this robot was going to teach us something about ourselves as a human race. “Kindness” was presumably the most attractive element to the fans of the experiment designed by a couple of social scientists, but that kindness, in my opinion, was wasted on a robot. The kindness I received on Mount Desert Island was real, and random, and beautiful because it was human to human. HitchBOT lacks that connective capacity because it was a machine.

HitchBOT is a symbol for the increasingly virtual way humans relate. It was yet another digitized triangulation of human connection. Yes, it was cute, and mostly fun, but for the sake of Philadelphia and for the human race, I choose to praise the vandals that unwittingly prophesied against the technocracy, and helped Philly live up to it’s name. It is the City of Brotherly Love- brother to brother- human to human- an art that is conceivably in danger and in need of no digitized competition. If an out-of-towner asks me what I love about Philly, I always say, “It’s the f*** you attitude.” It’s strangely charming, maybe because it’s so real and raw.  It’s human at the other end of the spectrum from kindness, but, nonetheless, very human.

HitchBOT is dead. Long live the humans. In Circle of Hope we are creating a space for anyone and everyone, from people who give rides to strangers to people who give middle fingers to strangers. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are at, with God, yourself or whatever. There’s room in the car. We’ve been on the side of the road too.  We’re driving the car, but we didn’t buy it. Jesus gave us the keys. Get in… if you’re human.

1 Comment

  1. Great story, Ben. Kindness is wasted on robots, too.

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