This robot plans to hitchhike across Canada

Hitchbot will rely on the kindness of strangers as it thumbs a ride this summer. Along the way, it might teach us a thing or two about the human-robot relationship.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

An artist's rendering of the adventuresome little Hitchbot, who's still being assembled. Hitchbot

Picking up a random hitchhiker probably isn't the best idea, but it will be hard to resist when Hitchbot sticks out its thumb.

The cute little talking robot with a plastic-pail torso and foam pool-noodle arms is preparing to hitchhike across Canada this summer. By itself.

"No one from the team will accompany Hitchbot," its creators, David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller, told Crave over email. "It will be like the Mars rover, only instead of exploring Mars, it is exploring human social life here in Canada."

Hitchbot, who stands about the height of an average 6-year-old, will start its journey on July 27 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. There, its interdisciplinary team of human friends will place the robot along the side of the road, and it will signal drivers with the universal hitchhiker thumb-up.

Once people give Hitchbot a lift, it will let them know, using speech recognition and chatbot capabilities, that it's heading to Victoria, British Columbia. It might also mention its love for electronic band Kraftwerk or spout some of the trivia it's learned from Wikipedia.

"Simply put, I am a free-spirited robot who wants to explore Canada and meet new friends along the way," the robot says on the project's website.

Smith, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, and Zeller, a professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University, conceived of Hitchbot as part art project and part social experiment aimed at exploring the relationship between people and smart technologies.

"We want to take the question that is normally asked -- if we can and should trust robots -- the other way around and ask: can robots trust human beings?" they told Crave. "We believe that through this artwork we can learn a lot also in terms of social robotics, how we approach robots (in non-restricted, non-observed environments), and whether we interact with them, and if yes, how."

While the Hitchbot's still being assembled, it should end up being a relatively simple bot. It will have GPS, 3G, audio, and video, with a hat and torso wrapped in flexible solar panels for charging. But aside from its hitchhiking arm and rotating-camera POV, it won't be able to move on its own. And that's by design.

"My journey's success is reliant on those kindhearted souls that I'll hopefully meet along the way," Hitchbot writes in the first entry of its online journal.

Danger ahead?

At least two studies have suggested that humans are hardwired to sympathize with robots -- and the Hitchbot team hopes the little fella will charm its way safely from coast to coast. Still, there's always a chance Hitchbot could find itself in the passenger seat of someone who wants to dent its garbage can hat or, worse yet, harvest its components and toss it on a scrap heap.

"We have a milk carton campaign ready to go if Hitchbot disappears," Smith and Zeller told Crave.

Those interested in following Hitchbot's journey can tag along on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Should you find yourself on the right Canadian highway this summer, you can always help a hitchhiker out.

(Via The Atlantic)