Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I, robot... looking for a lift

HitchBOT making friends across Canada

  • Print
David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller with hitchBOT in Halifax before it set off on its adventure.

SUPPLIED PHOTO Enlarge Image

David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller with hitchBOT in Halifax before it set off on its adventure.

A genderless robot making its way across Canada might be the most spoiled hitchhiker to ever raise a thumb.

Not only has hitchBOT been bumming free rides across the country, it's amassed new friends, accessories and even a pet along the way.

Last seen in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., hitchBOT began its journey July 27 in Halifax as both a social experiment and an ambitious art project, said its creators, David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller.

With a body crafted from a large bucket and limbs made of pool noodles, the robot's goal is to get to an art gallery in Victoria on its own, with no set path or supervision. HitchBOT cannot move, but it can raise its right thumb when it needs to hail a ride.

"We are really amazed at how well this has worked out and how people have embraced it and then helped to develop it into something very dynamic and interesting," said Zeller, an assistant professor working in the area of cultural robotics at Ryerson University. "What we like our robots to do is inspire discussions about human beings and technology... we want to see how people react to it."

So far, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Thanks to hitchBOT's burgeoning social media presence -- it's got more than 25,000 Twitter followers to date -- Canadians know about and want to connect with the travelling mini-celeb.

Jean-Pierre Brien from Halifax was one of hitchBOT's lucky hosts. As he and two friends were travelling to a wedding in Quebec, they saw hitchBOT was waiting for a ride in Kouchibouguac National Park north of Moncton, N.B. On a whim, they swung six hours out of their way to pick up the new friend.

"We tried to make it as comfortable as possible. We gave it the front seat next to the power charger and we took very good care of it," said Brien.

HitchBOT needs to be plugged into a vehicle's cigarette lighter or another power outlet every now and again to keep its energy up. The robot connects to the Internet and takes photos of its surroundings roughly every half hour, which it posts to social media with the driver's permission.

HitchBOT has speech-recognition technology, too, so it can carry on a conversation with the help of Wikipedia searches.

"It would have a conversation with us, but I would put 'conversation' in air quotes," said Brien, laughing. "It was more or less what hitchBOT felt like talking about. When it met new people, it would start talking about its owners and it would ask you for a ride."

"It uses something that we also use as human beings in our conversations, and that is if the conversation is slowed down or we don't really know what the other person is talking about, we'll just lob out a new topic," said Smith, an assistant professor in cultural robotics at McMaster University.

While hitchBOT's creators can hear what their invention is saying back home in Port Credit, Ont., they can't hear what others are saying to hitchBOT, which can make for a fun guessing game.

"We don't really know what they are talking about, but we do get lots of reports back from people and they say hitchBOT is hilarious.

Sometimes, you can have philosophical conversations with it and sometimes it just jumps to very funny phrases," Zeller said.

While hitchBOT was in his possession, Brien said it asked him if he believed in God and gave him lots of weather updates.

"At one time, it talked about wanting a puppy but it wasn't sure if its owners would let it have a puppy," Brien said.

He ended up giving hitchBOT a stuffed puppy before dropping it off in Campbellton, N.B. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, hitchBOT might just make it all the way to Victoria, which Zeller admits she wasn't sure would happen.

"We've become more and more optimistic now since we see how well people are treating hitchBOT. We're pretty sure he's going to make it," she said.

"Everybody is looking out for hitchBOT on social media, so when he stops somewhere for some time, people start inquiring on Twitter and Facebook, 'Hey, what's happening to hitchBOT? He's not moving that well.' Social media has become a safety belt for hitchBOT, in a way."

If all goes as unplanned, hitchBOT could be in Winnipeg as early as this weekend, so keep an eye out and a seat empty for the little robot that could.

jessica.botelho-urbanski@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2014 A2

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Gary Lawless & Ed Tait try not to bleeping cry over the woesome Jets

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 100615 - Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 The Mane Attraction - Lions are back at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. Xerxes a 3-year-old male African Lion rests in the shade of a tree in his new enclosure at the old Giant Panda building.  MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • A mother goose has chosen a rather busy spot to nest her eggs- in the parking lot of St Vital Centre on a boulevard. Countless cars buzz by and people have begun to bring it food.-Goose Challenge Day 06 - May 08, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What's your favourite Halloween treat to hand out?

View Results

Ads by Google