hitchBOT on July 27 started its journey across Canada one ride at a time. Drivers who pick up the robot can ask it questions and have conversations, but be easy, it just learned English
Picking up hitchhikers is a good way to meet interesting travelers, although with safety concerns drivers these days are less likely to pick up a stranger on the side of the road. But what about a robot?
Several professors and researchers are conducting an experiment to see if their robot, called hitchBOT, can make it across Canada, by seeking out one ride at a time with its thumb out. The trivia-loving, wellington-wearing robot left Halifax, N.S., on July 27 and is heading to Victoria, B.C., which is more than 6,000 km away. hitchBOT started its journey on the westbound side of the Veterans Memorial Highway and as of Tuesday seems to have made it to Dalhousie, N.B., which is about 550 km from where it started.
The point of the journey is to explore human-robot-interactions and to test technologies in artificial intelligence, speech recognition and processing. hitchBOT was designed to be a sociable robot and is tweeting and instagramming its journey.
“Usually, we are concerned with whether we can trust robots. This project asks: can robots trust human beings?” Dr. Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University and member of the team that created hitchBOT, said in a statement.
A driving companion
hitchBOT can communicate with those that pick it up. Drivers can ask it about its creation, personal history and its family. However, the robot may get ‘tired’ and in that case need to be plugged into a cigarette lighter in a car or into a regular plug at someone’s house. If it is ‘very tired’ it may not say anything for five to 10 minutes and need to charge for up to 45 minutes.
Of course, even if fully charged, hitchBOT may not be the best conversationalist.
“Please be patient – speaking human is rather difficult for me, and I only recently learned it,” hitchBOT said on its website. “So when it’s quite noisy around me, or too many people talking to me, my brain hurts and I have to shut up for a while to find my inner peace again. This can take between 20 minutes and a couple of hours.”
hitchBOT also noted that it is still learning: “Sometimes I just don’t get what you are saying – and then I might answer in a funny way, or just babble some nonsense away. Truth is, I am embarrassed and don’t want to admit that my linguistic abilities are still developing.”
hitchBOT was developed as an art project by Dr. David Harris Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, and Dr. Frauke Zeller. Others that have joined the project include Dr. Ebrahim Bagheri, assistant professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Ryerson University, and Dr. Frank Rudzicz, assistant professor in Computer Science at the University of Toronto.
The final destination is the Open Space artist-run center in Victoria, B.C. The team does not know how long the journey will take, as hitchBOT is entirely reliant on people. The robot is equipped with GPS and 3G wireless connection, so it could be tracked if anything should go awry.
“hitchBOT will have to rely on people to get around, including being strapped into a car seat belt,” David Harris Smith said. “We expect hitchBOT to be charming and trustworthy enough in its conversation to secure rides across Canada.”
Of course, this hitchhiker can be a bit more high maintenance than others. It doesn’t like rain – but it is as waterproof as a robot can be – wind or hail, and busy highways can be scary, so it asks to be dropped at gas stations or donut shops. If it has any issues, drivers can call its ‘family.’ It also asks that drivers call its creators when it reaches Toronto so it can have a quick visit when approaching the end of its journey. It also likes hugs, gentle ones, but at the end of the day it is still a robot, so don’t try to feed it.