UNSOLVED MYSTERIES
The week of February 7th, 2016
Hitchbot_JLongo_12116

The last days of HitchBOT

By Duncan Fyfe

“The head, as far as we know, is missing.”

Aug. 1, 2015, a Saturday morning: Rebecca Tennenbaum, an artist studying in Philadelphia, got a call from a friend in New York. They’d hoped to see each other the night before, but he arrived in Philly later than expected and stayed only long enough to drop off his passenger, a hitchhiking robot from Canada.

Its name was HitchBOT, and it was an art project, or social experiment, run by professors and students from Ontario’s McMaster and Ryerson universities. They would leave HitchBOT by the side of the road with some far-off destination set in its tablet PC of a brain, and the robot—who was immobile but could chat, relate trivia from Wikipedia, wink, and smile—had to charm passing drivers into carrying it part of the way. It had already done this successfully in Canada and Germany, and people loved it: It had tens of thousands of fans across its frequently updated Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. Two weeks prior, HitchBOT had begun its United States crossing—east coast to west, Salem to San Francisco.

HitchBOT in happier times.

Following the GPS tracker on HitchBOT’s website, Tennenbaum’s friend could see the robot was stuck in Philadelphia’s Old City, at the intersection of North Second Street and Elfreth’s Alley. He asked if she wouldn’t mind taking it to its next stop. Tennenbaum had plans to visit the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey with her boyfriend, but Old City was on the way, so she agreed.

The oldest residential street in America, Elfreth’s Alley shares a neighborhood with a hive of late-night bars, and it’s not the nicest place to be alone in the small hours of a Saturday morning. So Tennenbaum was disappointed—“but not surprised, I guess”—when she arrived at the intersection to find HitchBOT not waiting cheerfully on a bench for its next ride, but beat up and tossed behind a parking lot wall, wires stripped, arms dumped in a pile of leaves, and its severed head nowhere to be seen.

Tennenbaum sent a photo of the corpse to her friend, who recommended she take possession of the robot for what remained of its own safety. She and her boyfriend stashed the body in the trunk of their car and went to the aquarium. In the meantime, a mutual friend tweeted Tennenbaum’s photo to a CBS Boston staffer, and from there the news of HitchBOT’s destruction was picked up by BuzzFeed, NBC, ABC, CBC—where the headline was “Hitchbot’s parents talk about their loss”—with many others following in the days to come. From Ontario, HitchBOT’s “parents,” or project team, confirmed that while HitchBOT itself may not be “dead,” exactly, its dream of hitching across America definitely was.

“You should build a robot that can take the heads off the people that hurt HitchBOT.”

HitchBOT’s Facebook wall filled up with embarrassed apologies: It didn’t look great for the rest of the world to receive a happy traveling robot with love only for it to be murdered two weeks after setting foot in America. The eulogies begged forgiveness (“As a Philadelphian, I am sorry. I promise we are all NOT LIKE THAT”), rhapsodized (“HitchBOT, you appeal to our latent desire for the magical. Thank you”), and called for vengeance (“you should build a robot that can take the heads off the people that hurt hitchbot.”)

To this day, nobody knows who those people were. And nobody knows where HitchBOT’s head is.

The remains of HitchBOT photographed by Rebecca Tennenbaum.

Although a robot, HitchBOT looked less like something out of Boston Dynamics than the inflatable flailing man outside of a car dealership. Its body was a bucket of low-cost computer parts, its limbs blue pool noodles stuffed into yellow kitchen gloves and Wellingtons. Its face broadcast a smiley-face emoticon in red LEDs, shielded behind a clear plastic cake-saver. A retractable tripod unfolding from its backside allowed the robot to sit comfortably. In America, it carried a little American flag, for all the good that did.

Stranded by the side of the road, it looked like actual garbage, but cheerful garbage. “Hardware-store chic,” quipped its creators, David Smith and Frauke Zeller. It had an odd, endearing personality: When it spoke, it alternated between geeky friendliness (“My name is HitchBOT. Would you like to have a conversation? I can converse about many things”) and no-nonsense directive (“Please pick me up and put me in your vehicle”). HitchBOT needed to look nonthreatening enough that you’d feel OK about putting it in your car, but not valuable enough that you’d drive it straight to a pawn shop. It needed to make friends.

 

And it did. HitchBOT danced on the shoulders of the bride at a wedding in the mountains of British Columbia. On Manitoulin Island, the Wikwemikong First Nation gave the robot an honorary name: Biiaabkookwe, or Iron Woman. On the flight to Germany the Air Canada stewards grew so fond of HitchBOT that they took a photo of it on the toilet. A couple in Leipzig brought it back to their house to watch a movie. And in Frankfurt, HitchBOT was invited to another wedding, where it received, it says, “a special kiss from the bride.”

All these encounters—and it seems pretty much every encounter HitchBOT had—were documented on social media. “Hanging out with my bff, #hitchbot” is a typical Instagram caption from someone who met HitchBOT during its “alive” period. Sometimes the robot itself responded: “Howdy! I love this photo you took of us. Can I use it for a future social media post?”

HitchBOT was built to thrive in a modern social media environment. “Would you like to take a selfie?” it asked of everyone it met. (Though it spoke with a female voice, its creators consider it officially gender-neutral.) The bot was even programmed with the autonomy to post its own photos and tweets, though human handlers took back these functions when its photos proved blurry and its tweets to fans incoherent and/or rude. (Q: “What’s your favorite color?” A: “Are you not capable of intelligent conversation?”)

The important detail here, clearly: HitchBOT had a camera. A camera that automatically took photos every 20 minutes and uploaded those to Ontario for Instagram curation. Could one of those photos be of the person that killed it? Could HitchBOT actually solve its own murder?

“It didn’t take any pictures unfortunately of the culprits,” Frauke Zeller told the Guardian. “They were lucky because… it must have been in-between that [20 minute] interval.” All the HitchBOT team can say for sure is that between 6–7am. on Aug. 1, they stopped receiving data from the robot. “The tablet and battery and everything shut off at the same time so it must have been when they vandalised the bot.”

If the particulars of HitchBOT’s assailant are mysterious, the broad details readily suggest themselves. “I just think someone saw it, probably came out of a bar and was drunk and beat the crap out of it,” Philadelphia Police Detective Joe Murray told the Philadelphia Daily News. “Leaving it in Old City on a [Friday] night is probably the worst idea ever. Anything could happen.”

It makes sense. Imagine you’re a guy, leaving a bar at 6am on a Saturday—drunk, depressed, alone—going home, or to some early morning job, and running into a chintzy little robot with a big grin on its face, who says something to you like, “Are you not capable of intelligent conversation?” Nobody needs that.

Could that be what happened? And if so, what about the head? Did he keep it as a trophy?

Smith and Zeller preferred to not find out. “HitchBOT’s family has no interest in pressing charges or finding the people who vandalized HitchBOT,” they wrote in a statement at the time. “[We] wish to remember the good times, and we encourage HitchBOT’s friends and fans to do the same.” Without their cooperation, the Philadelphia police couldn’t investigate the vandalism. The case went cold. For HitchBOT’s family, even now, it’s not part of the conversation: They routinely decline all interview requests about the incident. HitchBOT might have been destroyed, but its “family” is still in charge of the robot’s story, and murder and decapitation are just not going to be part of it.

The video surfaced on Aug. 3, two days after the attack. It was CCTV footage, showing a man in an oversize Eagles jersey strolling up North Second at 5am, where he spots HitchBOT on a bench. The man gives the bot, whose body is obscured by a mailbox, a swift, savage beating, and dumps its freshly severed arms on the sidewalk. Job done, he swaggers off towards the sunrise. The footage aired on virtually every major news network: Allegedly, the anchors said as a caveat, this is the man who killed HitchBOT.

There are three problems with this video, which ought to have cast doubts on its legitimacy. First, you never see HitchBOT’s body. Second, there is no security camera in the location that the video suggests. Third, it was released through a professional prankster’s Snapchat.

“First, I just want to say how proud I am that Ed and I were able to prank the news,” Jesse Wellens said in a video blog post on his YouTube channel, the day after. The footage was all faked: The arms you see in the video were homemade replicas, and the assailant was otherwise kicking thin air. “Of course, we did not destroy the robot, let that be clear, some fricking asshole did destroy it, but it wasn’t us, so we wanted to flip the story and mess with the news.” Wellens finished by urging viewers to support “the HitchBOT project” on social media.

In the world of YouTube stardom, Jesse Wellens is so successful that Google auto-completes a search for his name with “net worth.” (It’s $4.8 million, supposedly.) The YouTube channel PrankVsPrank documents Wellens and girlfriend Jeana’s life of playing constant pranks on one another. Jesse puts hot pepper extract in Jeana’s food; Jeana tricks Jesse into drinking breast milk; Jesse makes Jeana think their cat fell out the window and died; Jeana draws a dick on Jesse’s forehead; Jesse duct-tapes a sleeping Jeana into bed and throws a bug at her. More recently, they’ve been pranking the Philadelphia public at large: Dressing as an employee in a Target and being unhelpful to customers, or going out into the street and pretending to kill their own baby. The PrankVsPrank channel, as of this writing, has 9.5 million subscribers, and its videos have 1.5 billion views.

Wellens made the HitchBOT video with Ed Bassmaster, real name Edwin Barry II, who has his own prank channel with a modest 2 million subscribers. In Bassmaster’s videos, the comedian interacts with unsuspecting people in the guise of various characters, generally leaving them with a vague feeling of unease. One character is “Always Teste,” an inept moocher who starred in the faked footage.

Despite some revealing errors, the footage gained traction worldwide by capitalizing on the modern Internet’s expectation of prompt resolution to any mystery. But it was a weird thing for those two guys to do, considering they were—no joke—the last people to see HitchBOT alive.

Looking back on Wellens’s vlog for July 31, 2015, it’s fair to say the day was a weak one in prank history. With Jeana out of town, Wellens and Bassmaster cruised around Philly looking for prank opportunities and failed to find inspiration. Night fell. From his car, Wellens hovered a camera drone aimlessly over the city. (The closest thing to a prank happens here, when Wellens says he’s lost control of the drone. “Really?” says Bassmaster. “No,” Wellens says, “just joking.”) So imagine their relief when, after midnight, they found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a goofy hitchhiking robot with major social media presence, and somebody asked them: Do you want this?

That was Rebecca Tennenbaum’s friend, the one who drove HitchBOT down from New York. He figured the art museum was a safe enough place to leave HitchBOT until it could find another ride. HitchBOT’s creators had given it a “bucket list”—ominous choice of words—and the next item was a selfie at the Lincoln Memorial. So it was looking for a ride to Washington, D.C., when Wellens said he’d take the robot.

“All right, peeps, I’m taking the HitchBOT,” he said to the camera. “So if I die, these are the guys that killed me, OK?”

Bassmaster wanted to toss HitchBOT in the bed of his truck—“I don’t know where that thing’s been”—but Wellens buckled it into the back seat. “HitchBOT, do you need a seat belt?”

“Yes. Cool. OK. We are in Philadelphia.”

“Would you mind sitting in the back?” Bassmaster begged the robot. “Please sit in the back.”

“Why,” said HitchBOT, “so you can insult me again?”

Wellens laughed. After an hour or so, he decided he wasn’t really up for an impromptu drive to D.C. on the whim of a robot. Instead, Wellens would tell his 1.1 million Twitter followers where HitchBOT was and encourage one of them to pick it up in the morning. To ensure it would be easy to find, they would leave it somewhere well-known—say, the oldest residential street in America. At Elfreth’s Alley, Wellens and Bassmaster put HitchBOT on a bench. The bench was separated by a small wall from a parking lot, where Rebecca Tennenbaum would find the body in just a few hours.

Perhaps not a hundred percent confident about this plan, Bassmaster hailed a taxi. “Hey man,” to the driver pulling over, “how much would it cost to take this to D.C.? For the right price?”

The driver noticed the robot, and Wellens filming, and looked so frustrated and disappointed. It was three in the morning. “Take that to D.C.?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s a robot,” Wellens said.

“Well, we’re serious that we want to know how much it would be. If it’s in our price range, we want to do it.”

The driver considered it. “How much you got to spend?” Eventually, he named his price, and left the two to mull it over.  

“Three hundred and fifty dollars,” Wellens repeated, sitting next to the robot.

“Three hundred and fifty dollars for a round trip to fucking D.C.?” Bassmaster paced. “Three hundred and fifty dollars to D.C., dude?”

“Is that bad or good?”

“It’s freaking great!”

“Oh. I don’t know.”

“Dude, round trip to New York City—”

“But, you think he’s lying, you think he’d actually drive it to D.C.?”

Bassmaster shrugged. “That’s the thing.”

“You know he wouldn’t.” To HitchBOT, observing this negotiation in silence: “He would throw your ass into the river. And take three hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I think we just gotta leave him.”

HitchBOT would never be seen alive again. Wellens’s vlog cuts to him back at home, shirtless.

The next day, Wellens fielded media requests from local and national news, who’d seen Wellens’s tweets and wanted some quotes about HitchBOT’s final moments. Wellens agreed, but decided to prank the news by having Bassmaster show up for the interview in character as Always Teste. There’s not a whole lot to this prank—when interviewed, “Always Teste” doesn’t say anything unusual or interesting—but Wellens and Bassmaster were never going to be part of someone else’s story; everyone else is part of theirs.

After Wellens revealed his hand in the fake CCTV footage, people were confused. OK, it was a hoax, but did they actually kill HitchBOT, just for the prank? Some confusion was understandable: If you could naturally be suspected of a crime—like, if you were the last person to see the victim alive—would your first move be to make and release a video of yourself pretending to commit the crime? Even as a prank? But it’s seriously unlikely that Wellens and Bassmaster killed HitchBOT, because if they did, there’s no way they wouldn’t have filmed it.

Hitchbot in happier times

“SAN FRANCISCO OR BUST” read an unfortunate sticker on HitchBOT’s chassis. What was left of the robot was lying in state on Rebecca Tennenbaum’s porch on Saturday afternoon, its arms shoved down its hollow neck. In the early evening, a man showed up to bring HitchBOT home. Tennenbaum still doesn’t really know who this guy was. He was a friend of her friend in New York, and Tennenbaum understood he was looped in somehow with the HitchBOT team at McMaster and Ryerson. He loaded HitchBOT into the trunk of his car, but he didn’t take it home. At least, not right away. Instead, he got in touch with Scott Holden, of New Jersey, who decided: We have to bring this to Kevin Smith.

Kevin Smith, the Clerks and Chasing Amy director, had followed HitchBOT’s story for a while and talked about it on his podcast. When HitchBOT began its American voyage, Smith predicted a speedy death for the robot, with various indignities to be inflicted upon its corpse. The man who’d volunteered to repatriate HitchBOT to Canada was a Kevin Smith fan, and a listener of Holden’s own, Smith-focused, podcast. As it happened, Smith was due to host a special outdoor screening of Mallrats in Brooklyn the next day. Holden believed the director would enjoy seeing HitchBOT and suggested in strong terms that they go. They could even, he said, have Smith bring HitchBOT on stage.

The listener agreed, but when he ran it by HitchBOT’s creators, they said: You absolutely may not do that. They did not approve of Kevin Smith unveiling the headless corpse of their robot on stage at a screening of Mallrats. Why? he wondered, and they said they expected Smith would defile HitchBOT in some way. He was rattled but stuck to the plan.

Holden and the listener—let’s call him “Joe”—arrived at the outdoor venue in Williamsburg the following evening, with HitchBOT in Joe’s trunk. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen: Holden hadn’t discussed it with Smith other than to agree he’d bring the robot. Smith was booked for a pre-show Q&A, and Holden figured the whole world was wondering where HitchBOT was; was it safe, what happened to it? And Smith could bring it up on stage, whip a sheet off the body: well, surprise! The guy who made Dogma has it. It would be news. Joe, Holden remembers, was visibly concerned.

A decent crowd had gathered for the screening. Holden, Joe, and HitchBOT were ushered through security to see Smith. The event was running late, and showtime had been pushed back about 30 minutes, so with urgency, they shook hands and took a few photos with HitchBOT. Holden began to explain how he and Joe had come to possess it. “Save it,” Smith said. “You can tell it right on stage, it’ll be great.” Holden was thrilled.

No, Joe interrupted: We’re not allowed.

He explained about the phone call. Smith listened, and, not wanting to antagonize HitchBOT’s creators, let it go.

“That guy is a much stronger person than me. Because I would have been like, fuck them.”

Holden was more frustrated. “He was about to have a fucking moment,” he mourned on an episode of his podcast. “That guy is a much stronger person than me. Because I would have been like, fuck them.” HitchBOT stayed in the car for Smith’s Q&A, and then Joe took off. When Smith and Holden posted photos of the meeting, Joe blocked Holden on Twitter.

HitchBOT left America nonfunctional and partially intact, its body packed into a shipping carton. It was far from the homecoming David Smith and Frauke Zeller had planned. HitchBOT was supposed to return to Canada triumphant, with selfies from Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Hollywood. It should have met a hundred new friends, had a hundred new stories. It should have been the guest of honor on an Air Canada flight out of San Francisco, the stewards toasting it with champagne and photographing it on the toilet. Instead, HitchBOT was beaten and destroyed, stowed in car trunks, used in death to fuel viral content, and returned through the mail in a FedEx coffin.

Without its head. The head, we have to assume, remains in the United States, where perhaps it is still smiling. Smiling on a shelf in the basement lair of someone—or something—who shall forever remain anonymous: this creature, moving stooped through shadows, breathing heavily, chewing on raw flesh. The head of HitchBOT, perhaps, watches its killer through dead eyes, eyes that had looked out on the open roads of Salem, Massachusetts, down highways winding westward to the sea, a path on which waited great adventure, things to do, things to see—oh! the places you’ll go!

Or else it’s just in the trash.

Illustration by J. Longo. Photo of dismantled HitchBOT by Rebecca Tennenbaum.