Your mother and various other authorities probably warned you never to pick up hitchhikers. If you happen to be driving the highways of Canada this summer, you may or may not reconsider. HitchBOT—a child-sized talking robot—is currently traveling from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. HitchBOT stands at the road side, thumb cocked, and waits for curious drivers to pick it up. At this writing, it was just west of Toronto.
"We wanted a project that was both risky and adventurous, so joining those together would be hitchhiking, " says David Smith, an assistant professor of avatar virtual environments and new media arts at McMaster University. "It places robotic technology into an improbable cultural context."
It's the context, perhaps more than the technology, that fascinates Smith and his creative partner, Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University. Physically, HitchBOT is a simple machine. It's got a bucket body, pool noodle arms, and a cake saver head, inside of which blinks an LED face. It charges using the car's cigarette lighter.
As a social experiment, HitchBOT is more complex. The typical sci-fi conundrum asks whether humans can trust robots. But HitchBOT asks the inverse. Can a robot travel thousands of miles based solely on strangers' good will and not end up vandalized, stolen, or kicked into a ditch? So far, at least six random drivers have helped HitchBOT on its journey and dozens have posed for photos. Drivers who pick up the bot are directed to a web site for instructions on care and handling and drop-off protocol. "HitchBOT enables people to come closer to other human beings," says Zeller.
Smith adds that HitchBOT is also charting new social media territory—at least in the field of robotics. "Our original conception of a robot is as something self-contained," he says. "This project uniquely takes advantage of the social media connection. At the same time that you're present with the bot, you're interfacing with his 20,000 Twitter followers."
Indeed, HitchBOT is programmed to independently tweet and post photos to Instagram. And don't think its behavior is anything like those annoying Twitter bots. HitchBOT has a personality. "It's a bit nerdy," Smith says. "It has some encyclopedic knowledge of Canada. If you’re talking to it, it may start to tell you about the province of Ontario or Canadian seals." It also uses speech recognition technology to have actual conversations. "You can go back and forth with it. If it detects a long silence, it might ask you a question, like 'What's your favorite movie?' or 'What are you thinking about?'"
So far, HitchBOT has had a pleasant trip. It's possible, however, that the robot's success has less to do with universal goodwill and more to do with its fellow countrymen and women. "People say that it could also work in other countries," admits Smith, "but Canadians are very polite and nice."