Image. HitchBOT ready to start his odyssey. 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 start hitchhiking solo from Halifax to Victoria. And if you're planning on picking up the little guy, he won't be a bore: hitchBOT can even consult Wikipedia to make sure he has plenty of material to talk about with his new friends on the road.
HitchBOT was conceived by David Smith, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at McMaster University, along with Frauke Zeller, an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. Both professors have keen research interests in human-computer and human-robot interactions, examining the ways they socially engage and the implications for the future. Not surprisingly, they’ve grown quite attached to this little autonomous being.
Designed by Smith and Zeller with the help of everyone from speech pathologists to computer engineers, the bot is equipped with artificial intelligence software programmed to recognize speech and to converse with the people kind enough to pick him up. With a built-in camera hitchBOT will visually capture his journey, while using a mixture of 3G and WiFi connectivity to figure out its exact location and plan its journey from there.
For battery power, he'll trust the good citizens of Canada to plug him into their cigarette outlets for some juice.
While the bot will be physically on its own, hitchBOT will be remotely supported by a team of 10 researchers—ranging from mechatronics engineers, to philosophers, to social media minders—who will be following and troubleshooting what technical issues may arise. For battery power, he'll trust the good citizens of Canada to plug him into their cigarette outlets for some juice.
Having nurtured it to a state where it can essentially fly the coop, I got the sense that for Smith and Zeller 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,” Zeller told me over a conference call. “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.”
In an online post on his official website, hitchBOT says he "may look young but I have an old soul" and thanks his supportive "family," and that he's one cool "free-spirited" robot that is an active "intagrammer and tweeter."
HitchBOT's "about me" on its official website.
“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 and the ideal person to ask about the Canadian hitchhiking experience and what hitchBOT can expect. Throughout his late teens and 20s, Mischa 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 near the Vancouver ferry docks:
“So I’m sitting in the car with this guy, and he says, ‘I pay people to do crazy things,’" he told me. "And it turns out all the crazy things had to do with men taking their pants off. He offered me 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," Mischa said. "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... So hopefully the robot gets that guy. It can just Wikipedia physics and blow his mind.”
With so much uncertainly surrounding the success of hitchBOT’s mission, I asked Mischa if he thought the journey would end up working out. He gave me two obvious scenarios. One where ordinary Canadians brought hitchBOT across Canada in a display of unity and humanity, dropping it off with everyone behaving "like it was a cool thing to do."
The other scenario was a little darker: "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.