hitchBOT photo via Instagram.
On July 27 a little robot with a beer cooler torso wrapped in solar panels, water noodle arms, and big wellington boots on its feet, plans to hitchhike solo from Halifax to Victoria. It can even consult Wikipedia to make sure it has plenty of material to keep its new friends entertained on the road.
If you’re not already familiar, hitchBOT is a collaborative, conceptual art project involving elements of interaction design, mechatronics, software semantics, new media, modern philosophy, and a whole slew of high-tech and social research fields that I didn’t really know existed or had proper names.
Mashing all of them into a rudimentary, Canadian kind of R2D2—set to head west alone and into the great unknown—the piece is both the object and the journey. hitchBOT has been roughly designed to discover if a lonesome hitchhiking robot can flip a common 21st century question on it’s head, and ask not if humans can trust technology… but if technology can really trust humans.
hitchBOT’s quest will be remotely supported by a team of 10 researchers—ranging from mechatronics engineers, to philosophers, to social media minders—who will be remotely following and troubleshooting what solvable technical issues may arise. According to a press release on the hitchBOT website, it uses its "AI and User Interface design, including speech recognition and processing, and 3G and WiFi connectivity [to] know its exact location and can plan its journey from there."
The initial idea of sending a robot into the wild on a hitchhiking Canadian odyssey, though, was conceived by David Smith, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at McMaster University, along with Frauke Zeller, an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Ryerson. Both brains have keen research interests in human-computer/human-robot interaction. Not surprisingly, they’ve grown quite attached to this little autonomous being. Having nurtured it to a state where it can essentially fly the coop, I got the sense that it’ll kind of be like watching their teenager awkwardly stroll off into the sunset with a massive backpack hugging their shoulders.
“We’ve been teaching hitchBOT everything. We came up with the identity of hitchBOT—so what kind of hobbies should hitchBOT have and the name and everything,” Frauke told me via conference call (communications technology!) “And so we’ve been helping hitchBOT with everything at the moment, to tweet, to build a Facebook website. Everything we do is about hitchBOT, so of course we’re emotionally attached to it, it’s very dear to us.”
“We often send bots into situations of danger,” Smith says. “Where you wouldn’t want to put a human being. And it’s conceptually interesting that we’re sending a bot to hitchhike. Many of the concerns that people would have if their sons or daughters or best friends were hitting the road with their thumb out are the same concerns that people are expressing about the bot.”
My pal Mischa O’Hoski is a seasoned vet of the road. Throughout his late teens and 20s, he’s thumbed everywhere in Canada from Toronto to Inuvik, has been down to Mexico, all across the USA, and over the ocean to hitch rides through Mediterranean Europe.
One story he told that's always stuck with me was about getting picked up by the Vancouver ferry docks:
“So I’m sitting in the car with this guy, and he says, ‘I pay people to do crazy things.’ And it turns out all the crazy things had to do with men taking their pants off. He offered him 50 bucks to let me blow him and also promised me a trip to Australia.”
To some that choice may have been a no brainer, but Mischa declined and understandably felt a bit rattled.
Given that hitchBOT doesn’t have the capability to pleasure anyone on the road, I asked Mischa if the robot’s ability to chatter on from Wikipedia could help its odds of getting across the country. Mischa’s technique, when getting from point A to point B, is apparently not about filling the air with conversation:
“I just shut the fuck up and look out the window. It’ll get kicked out of every car if it just rattles on. Speak if spoken to. If not, shut the fuck up. But then again if it gets a ride with any truckers they’ll be talking about all kinds of crazy shit. I had this one trucker pick me up in Northern BC like right around Fort Nelson and all he wanted to fucking talk about was physics. And I hadn’t slept in a while and I kept passing out, and he kept going, ‘Nope, don’t fall asleep on me there buddy, I gotta tell you all about physics and shit’ And I was so fucking bored, like pinching myself to stay awake and listening to this guy talk about the bending of light in the universe. So hopefully the robot gets that guy. It can just Wikipedia physics and blow his mind.”
Since Mischa has seen parts of Canada most people will never encounter, I asked him what awesome tucked away spots hitchBOT should try and experience. His answer was definitive: “Kitwanga.”
“It’s this little, tiny town in BC that’s at the bottom of the Cassiar Highway. They have this campsite there that’s right at the side of the road that you can stay at for free and you can see the mountains and it’s really pleasant. And no one goes up the Cassiar Highway—save for like five cars a day. So if it ever goes up there it should stay there because it’s going to be waiting around for days.”
With so much uncertainly surrounding the success of hitchBOT’s mission, I asked Mischa if he thought the journey would end up working out:
"I don’t know. I see two things happenings. What I’d like to see happen and what I thought would be the coolest thing is if people just brought it on its way for a short amount of time and then just dropped it off, and everyone just behaved like it was a cool thing to do… It would bring a sense of community within Canada that everyone helped the thing out. And that’s why I like hitchhiking because it renews your faith in humanity when people are just willing to help you for no reason. But I can also very easily picture someone saying, ‘Hey look, it’s that fucking robot!’ and then just smashing it with a baseball bat or something.”
Good luck out there, hitchBOT.