Who broke hitchBOT apart? And will the little robot ever be put together again?
Those two questions may never be fully answered, but the makers of the world-traveling, hitchhiking Canadian robot shed some light Wednesday on what happened to their creation after it arrived in Philadelphia.
In a statement, Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith confirmed that the dismantled bot was on its way home to Ontario.
That notice came a day after Philadelphians Jesse Wellens and Ed Bassmaster admitted that they made the widely disseminated "surveillance" video of a man wearing an Eagles jersey holding what appeared to be hitchBOT's dismembered arms, and kicking a hidden object that could be the rest of the robot. The video, they originally said, came from surveillance cameras near Elfreth's Alley and Second Street, where they had left hitchBOT about 5 a.m. Saturday.
But in a posting Tuesday night, Wellens and Bassmaster, who make prank videos for YouTube, confirmed what many people had suspected: The surveillance video was bogus. Tuesday night's post shows the two making replicas of the robot's arms, staging the scene, and later attacking an unseen object purported to be the robot.
In Tuesday night's post, the two said they did not wreck the robot and just wanted to pull off a hoax.
So, the question remained Wednesday of what happened to hitchBOT between when it was left at Second and Elfreth's Alley, and when an unidentified person found it in pieces hours later, and contacted Zeller and Smith.
Zeller, an assistant professor of communication at Ryerson University in Ontario, said in an e-mail Wednesday that she and Smith also were fooled by the so-called surveillance video. She also said they were grateful the robot was on its way home.
The pint-size robot is immobile and "always relied on the kindness of strangers" to get around, Zeller said in the statement.
And that was happening again Wednesday. Smith said in an interview that he and Zeller received a notice telling them that hitchBOT had been shipped home Wednesday morning. (But not before a brief detour to Brooklyn, where the now-headless traveler was photographed with the movie director Kevin Smith, who posted the image on his Twitter account.)
HitchBOT was conceived as a social experiment to gauge how people would treat a nonmobile robot hitchhiker.
After uneventful sojourns in Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada, hitchBOT was sent to this country for a transnational venture: a trip that began July 17 in Marblehead, Mass., and was to end in San Francisco.
The trip was cut short early morning Saturday in Old City.
But hitchBOT may yet accomplish its mission of crossing the United States.
David Harris Smith and Zeller, in their statement, said they were considering rebuilding the little hitchhiker for another cross-country journey next year. This time, it would start in Philadelphia.
Wednesday's news release reiterated the researchers' previous statements that they are not interested in pressing charges or finding those who vandalized hitchBOT. They knew this was a risk going in, Harris Smith wrote.
"Even though it did end badly for hitchBOT, we've learned a lot about human empathy and trust - everything we've learned will be borne out in the resulting research and used in future planning for hitchBOT's adventures," Smith wrote.