A Hitchhiking Robot Records Summer Road Trip On Social Media

Social media-savvy hitchBOT will thumb its way across Canada starting this July.

This summer, a kindergartener-sized robot will stick out its thumbing hand – its only movable part – and attempt to be the first-ever machine to hitchhike across Canada. Part of a collaborative art project dreamed up by language and artificial intelligence researchers in Ontario, Canada, hitchBOT is programmed to chat with drivers and document its adventures via social media along the way.

The brainchild of Dr. David Harris Smith (McMaster University) and Dr. Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University), hitchBOT will be setting out on July 27th, 2014, from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with its sights set on reaching Victoria, British Columbia. Drs. Smith and Zeller and their team have outfitted the robot with a range of technology to help its progress and track its journey, including 3G and WiFi, GPS and solar panels. To protect its high-tech gear, the droid will have a cooler bucket for a body, a cake saver protecting the solar panels in its head, and sturdy rubber boots on its feet, as shown in an artist’s rendition.

Artist's rendition of hitchBOT on the highway

However, like all hitchhikers, hitchBOT will have to rely on the kindness of strangers to reach its goal; already relying on humans for safe transport, hitchBOT may need to be recharged from time to time when his solar batteries run out, requiring a driver to plug it into their car’s cigarette lighter.

“Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots…but this project takes it the other way around and asks: can robots trust human beings?” said Dr. Zeller.

To build trust and entertain its host drivers, hitchBOT is equipped to recognize speech and then chat with its voice, as well as to produce text-based messages via its LED screen or online. For conversation topics, it can turn to its Wikipedia and social media application programming interfaces (API). “We expect hitchBOT to be charming and trustworthy enough in its conversation to secure rides through Canada.” While many of their research contemporaries are struggling to build an artificial intelligence that appears human, Smith and Zeller encourage the idea of drivers interacting casually with hitchBOT inside and outside their cars, even to take the bot home or to a party. They believe that “that through this artwork, we can learn a lot in terms of social robotics and how we approach robots in non-restricted, non-observed environments.”

In addition to its “family” of caregivers, hitchBOT has one sibling: kulturBOT, an art-loving robot constructed by Dr. Zeller from Roomba vacuum, a kitchen sieve, and mini camera, and a projector, with a spent much of 2013 reviewing art shows by posting captioned photos of artwork and show-goers on Twitter and projected on the walls of galleries themselves. According to hitchBOT itself (or perhaps its ghostwriters) on the project’s website, the brothers reflect “what happens when a robot is influenced by both the sciences and the humanities.” With the start of hitchBOT’s journey only a few weeks away, Canadian drivers – and perhaps American ones, too, depending on its route – may soon have a chance to meet, in hitchBOT’s own words, “a free-spirited robot who wants to explore Canada and meet new friends along the way.”

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