Bumming rides, hitchhiking robot completes Canadian journey

BY Xander Landen  August 17, 2014 at 2:05 PM EST


A hitchhiking robot has completed a 3,700-mile journey across Canada Sunday, capping off a research project that explores the relationship between robots and humans.

A team of researchers from a group of Canadian universities created hitchBOT, a talking robot made out of a bucket, garden gloves and rain boots that set out on its coast-to-coast Canadian trip in Nova Scotia on July 26. It finished the journey in Victoria, British Columbia.

hitchBOT was brought to life to “explore topics in human-robot-interaction and to test technologies in artificial intelligence and speech recognition and processing,” researchers said in a press release.

“Usually, we are concerned with whether we can trust robots,” said Dr. Frauke Zeller, Assistant Professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University. “This project asks: can robots trust human beings?”

hitchBOT is programmed with mobile technology and outfitted with a GPS system and speech recognition software. It can carry out conversations in person as well as on social media.

While the robot can’t move on its own and depends on humans for travel, it can stand and its arms, made out of pool noodles, are always outstretched to catch the attention of drivers from the side of the road. A car seat attached to its torso makes it easy to strap it into a vehicle with a seat belt.

Because it was developed to be a social robot, hitchBOT’s creators encouraged passersby to pick up hitchBOT if they happened upon it during its cross-country trip. People can ask hitchBOT about its creation, personal history and even its family, the press release said.

“What we wanted to do is situate robotics and artificial technologies into unlikely scenarios and push the limits of what it’s capable of,” David Smith, the robot’s co-creator and professor at Ontario’s McMaster University told The Associated Press. “It’s challenging but it can also be highly engaging and entertaining as hitchBOT has proven.”

The robot has proven popular among Canadians and has attended social events on his journey, including a wedding and an Aboriginal powwow.

And unlike many human hitchhikers, hitchBOT didn’t have much trouble finding rides.

“Social and traditional media have really ensured that HitchBOT is well-known,” Smith told the AP. “Some (drivers) have tried to search its location. And in most cases, hitchBOT has had multiple offers.”

hitchBOT is a collaborative research project by researchers from Ryerson University, McMaster University and NSCAD University.