Dr. Frauke Zeller and Dr. David Smith created HitchBOT (essentially a solar powered iPhone in an anthropomorphic shell) and sent him on trip to explore the USA on July 17, 2015. HitchBOT had previously successfully journey across Canada and Germany. The experiment was aimed at seeing how humans would interact with the “robot.” He lasted about two weeks in the United States, meeting his end in Philadelphia. The exact details of his destruction (and the theft of the iPhone) are not currently known, although the last people known to be with HitchBOT posted what seems to be faked “surveillance camera” video of HitchBOT’s demise. This serves to support the plausible claim that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches.
The experiment was certainly both innovative and interesting. It also generated questions about what the fate of HitchBOT says about us. We do, of course, already know a great deal about us: we do awful things to each other, so it is hardly surprising that someone would do something awful to the HitchBOT. People are killed every day in the United States, vandalism occurs regularly and the theft of technology is routine—thus it is no surprise that HitchBOT came to a bad end. In some ways, it was impressive that he made it as far as he did.
While HitchBOT seems to have met his untimely doom at the hands of someone awful, what is most interesting is how well HitchBOT was treated. After all, he was essentially an iPhone in a shell that was being transported about by random people.
One reason that HitchBOT was well treated and transported about by people is no doubt because it fits into the travelling gnome tradition. For those not familiar with the travelling gnome prank, it involves “stealing” a lawn gnome and then sending the owner photographs of the gnome from various places. The gnome is then returned (at least by nice pranksters). HitchBOT is a rather more elaborate version of the traveling gnome and, obviously, differs from the classic travelling gnome in that the owners sent HitchBOT on his fatal adventure. People, perhaps, responded negatively to the destruction of HitchBOT because it broke the rules of the travelling gnome game—the gnome is supposed to roam and make its way safely back home.
A second reason for HitchBOT’s positive adventures (and perhaps also his negative adventure) is that he became a minor internet celebrity. Since celebrity status, like moth dust, can rub off onto those who have close contact it is not surprising that people wanted to spend time with HitchBOT and post photos and videos of their adventures with the iPhone in a trash can. On the dark side, destroying something like HitchBOT is also a way to gain some fame.
A third reason, which is probably more debatable, is that HitchBOT was given a human shape, a cute name and a non-threatening appearance and these tend to incline people to react positively. Natural selection has probably favored humans that are generally friendly to other humans and this presumably extends to things that resemble humans. There is probably also some hardwiring for liking cute things, which causes humans to generally like things like young creatures and cute stuffed animals. HitchBOT was also given a social media personality by those conducting the experiment which probably influenced people into feeling that it had a personality of its own—even though they knew better.
Seeing a busted up HitchBOT, which has an anthropomorphic form, presumably triggers a response similar too (but rather weaker than) what a sane human would have to seeing the busted up remains of a fellow human.
While some people were rather upset by the destruction of HitchBOT, others have claimed that it was literally “a pile of trash that got what it deserved.” A more moderate position is that while it was unfortunate that HitchBOT was busted up, it is unreasonable to be overly concerned by this act of vandalism because HitchBOT was just an iPhone in a fairly cheap shell. As such, while it is fine to condemn the destruction as vandalism, theft and the wrecking of a fun experiment, it is unreasonable to see the matter as actually being important. After all, there are far more horrible things to be concerned about, such as the usual murdering of actual humans.
My view is that the moderate position is quite reasonable: it is too bad HitchBOT was vandalized, but it was just an iPhone in a shell. As such, its destruction is not a matter of great concern. That said, the way HitchBOT was treated is still morally significant. In support of this, I turn to what has become my stock argument in regards to the ethics of treating entities that lack moral status. This argument is stolen from Kant and is a modification of his argument regarding the treatment of animals.
Kant argues that we should treat animals well despite his view that animals have the same moral status as objects. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).
While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.
While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?
Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.
Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.
Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.
Being an iPhone in a cheap shell, HitchBOT obviously had the moral status of an object and not that of a person. He did not feel or think and the positive feelings people had towards it were due to its appearance (cute and vaguely human) and the way those running the experiment served as its personality via social media. It was, in many ways, a virtual person—or at least the manufactured illusion of a person.
Given the manufactured pseudo-personhood of HitchBOT, it could be taken as being comparable to an animal, at least in Kant’s view. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for HitchBOT Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether HitchBOT was more like an animal or more like a stone—at least in regards to the matter at hand.
If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog. This should also extend to HitchBOT. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a HitchBOT would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with HitchBOT would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior.
While the result of interactions with the HitchBOT would need to be properly studied, it makes intuitive sense that being “nice” to the HitchBOT would help incline people to be somewhat nicer to others (much along the lines of how children are encouraged to play nicely with their stuffed animals). It also makes intuitive sense that being “mean” to HitchBOT would incline people to be somewhat less nice to others. Naturally, people would also tend to respond to HitchBOT based on whether they already tend to be nice or not. As such, it is actually reasonable to praise nice behavior towards HitchBOT and condemn bad behavior—after all, it was a surrogate for a person. But, obviously, not a person.