Would You Stop To Pick Up A Hitchhiking Robot?

Sony Pictures’ upcoming film ‘CHAPPiE’, tells the story of an experimental robot, re-purposed to learn and feel.  While the film’s robotic-protagonist has been reprogrammed with a child-like sense of innocence and benevolent intentions, there remains an element of risk.  Parents ingrain the importance of not talking to strangers to their kids,  but what if those strangers are not human? What is the statute of the limitations when it comes to interacting with A.I.? Does the golden-rule apply when it comes to non-human, sentient life? While such quandaries may seem irreverent or merely a trope of science fiction for the time being, there may, nay, will be a day when we will have to think long and hard about the implications of our actions (or inactions) with artificial life, and it’s approaching sooner than you may think.

Back in June of 2014, a robot created by researchers from McMaster University and Ryerson University, hitchBOT, sought to capitalize off the kindness of humans to hitchhike across Canada, moving from human to human to get where it wanted to go. While hitchBOT was unable to pitch in for gas, drivers had to be content with the robot‘s generalized Wikipedia-based “conversation” and be willing to plug in the android to the vehicles’ cigarette-lighter to charge it while the bot tweeted about its whereabouts. What a free-loader.

Interestingly, any sympathy hitchBOT managed to derive from its human accomplices was completely internalized by those who were gracious enough to pick it up and provide it a lift. By hitchBOT simply looking the part, human surrogate caregivers projected the personification of innocence, naïvity and fragility on to hitchBOT, which consequently enabled it to manipulate humans into transporting it over 6,000 km between 19 rides in just 26 days. It even scored itself a wedding invitation.  Not too shabby for something with pool noodles for appendages.

‘CHAPPiE’, tells the story of an experimental robot built and designed to learn and feel, that must fight back against forces planning to take him down. Set in the fictional near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When one police droid, CHAPPiE, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself. While at first glance this premise may seem a tad far-fetched, we have never been closer to sentient robot “life”.

Anyone who has stopped to help a critter cross a busy road, or picked a snail up and moved it out of harms way on a busy sidewalk acknowledges (if not fully understands) the sense of duty felt by those who opted to help hitchBOT on its mission to travel across Canada; its the need to help someone or something that may be in danger of not realizing its full potential, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may be.  Some of those who picked up hitchBOT may have known what their contribution of kindness was building towards, others may have just recognized that they were contributing towards something fun and that was enough of a reason for them.  Whether the understanding of the gesture is fully recognized, or it simply feels good to the do-good-er having their benevolence mirrored back at them by something so powerless, the day may eventually come when our actions towards our creations have important consequences.  So do yourself (and mankind) a solid the next time you see your Roomba trapped in the corner of your dining room; help it out.  If cinema has taught us anything, there may be a time when humans could use some sympathy from a robot…