Good bot, bad cop, and the road to enlightenment

Finally, the true story of Hitchbot's roadside demise can be told, but the end of the road beckons for more than the commuting computer

Good bot, bad cop, and the road to enlightenment
Sean McGrath via Flickr

It’s Black Hat week, and not only don’t I have a black hat, they’re shaving my head. I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way to Vegas, and it looks like I never will. Instead of sucking down scotch on silky bar stools with security slicksters, I’m being processed into a rehab facility somewhere south and west of Philadelphia. They’re not going to let me leave until they’re convinced I’ve fully grokked the folly of drinking and the benevolence of anyone wearing a uniform. I may be here a while.

It all started when that wingnut hacked the jetliner. I travel a lot in this business, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes pursued by the authorities. (Or secret corporate thugs. Or drunken barflies. Twice by angry husbands and once by Mark Zuckerberg’s wet nurse, who I still maintain was a high priestess in the Third Church of Beelzebub.) Still, I never much liked flying, and the thought of a Soylent-snorting hacktivist or masked YouTube terror-monger steering my plane into a mountain with an iPad didn’t help. As Black Hat rolled around, I started making plans to drive.

Then a whole different set of winguts had to go and hack a Jeep, which happened to be the vehicle I purchased last month after I won big betting on Ellen Pao at the fight club Melinda Gates hosts to raise money for those in Silicon Valley deprived of their own dot-com. That left one option: Ride the Ducati devil bike to Vegas, which wouldn't have been such a bad idea if I weren’t well north of [age redacted] with kidneys that tend to complain when I treat them like maracas for five or six hours a day.

Hell or high water

But I’m a media professional, and I can't expect to miss a week of tech chaos in Vegas and still maintain my street cred. Come Saturday, I ran alternating scotch and water lines into the helmet, set the iPod to "Born to be Wild," stuffed skivvies and an Ultrabook into my requisite messenger bag, and headed west.

Everything was going fine until I hit the Poconos. I’d stayed the night in a motel near the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border in a hotel manned by a night clerk whose chin was so weak he made Elon Musk look like Kirk Douglas. Johnny Walker rocked me to sleep, and seven or eight helpings of Auntie Advil had me mobile and relatively pain-free in the morning.

I roared off with the sun at my back, raring for Vegas and only mildly incontinent. But as the day wore on, the motorcycle-kidney relationship worsened. Italians don’t torque their suspensions with old-man innards in mind. The devil bike was vibrating so badly I suspected it was doing it on purpose. Then I saw him.

Hitchbot on the highway

He looked like Gumby, only bigger and with a police light strapped to his head. He was standing by the side of the road doing exactly what God and your mom always counsel against. He even had a sticker on him: Hitchbot. I couldn’t leave him there. Some emotionally unstable person might pick him up.

Besides, there’s no way I’ll let the name Cringely be associated with discrimination against synthetic beings, no matter how dorky the configuration. And I figured with his plastic bulk on the back, it might stabilize the devil bike enough that I wouldn't piss blood that night. At first, he had a little trouble staying on, but to solve random robot problems, I always pack one item on my bike trips: duct tape. With two or three yards of shiny stickiness, he was positioned so securely you could have argued he was part of the bike.

All was well till we passed a state trooper. I don’t know whether he thought the ‘bot should have been wearing a helmet or if I’d accidentally strapped my last bottle of Johnny Walker to the outside of my jacket. No matter, he lit after us like we’d stolen his donut bag.

Always a fan of law and order, I pulled over somewhat immediately, only to have the cop come squealing up behind me and exit his vehicle. He was screaming something, but I couldn’t hear him over Steppenwolf, so I pointed to my helmet, obviously asking if it was OK for me to take it off.

But he kept yelling and pointing at my android passenger, indicating that the ‘bot should dismount first. Or maybe that I should release him, considering I had him wrapped in enough duct tape he could have moonlit as a reflector. I turned to cut the thing loose with the 6-inch sheath knife Marissa Mayer threw at me the day I sat on her purse, and the guy lost his mind. He screamed some Midwest obscenity, waved his baton at me, missed, and tagged the robot in the back.

From bad to worst-case scenario

Well, it turns out robot circuitry and heavy, leaden objects don’t mix. The poor thing crumbled like a Starbucks scone, feebly waved its arms and tipped over, taking me and the bike with it. Circuits smoking, he was obviously in distress, and I know I heard him call my name in digital agony, no matter what the alcohol counselors say. I knew I could save him if only I could repurpose the cop’s on-board PC, but Pennsylvania’s finest wouldn’t listen to reason.

So I cold-cocked him.

In retrospect, it was perhaps a questionable decision, especially since opening the cop’s PC and the robot’s head resulted in me sitting next to an unconscious patrolman, a decimated robot husk, and a rats’ nest of miscellaneous silicon -- not the best first impression when the backup officer showed up.

But still, I classify it as a defining moment in human-android relations, which I hope the incoming class of robot overlords will remember when they’re handing out fiefdoms. They better be impressed because the trooper’s comrades certainly weren’t. There were pointed introductions with a nightstick, a lot of screaming on my part, and a long talk with someone claiming to be a mental health specialist but who I’m pretty sure worked for Google. Now I’m at a nameless head-shrinking facility undoubtedly managed by the NSA, typing my last manifesto on a smartphone I borrowed from Phil the orderly when he turned his back during art class.

I don’t know when next I’ll be able to post to you loyal readers, so let me leave you with these sage words: Be impatient, always question the status quo, and never skimp on the scotch.


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