Nova Scotia

HitchBOT the hitchhiking robot to travel across Canada

A hitchhiking robot is set to start off on a whirlwind adventure, attempting to hitchhike from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, and relying on the kindness of strangers to get to its final destination.

Journey to Victoria kicks off in Nova Scotia on July 27

A hitchhiking robot is set to start off on a whirlwind adventure, attempting to hitchhike from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, and relying on the kindness of strangers to get to its final destination. 

HitchBOT is more of a collaborative art project and social experiment than a marvel of modern technology.

The little traveller is about the size of a six-year-old child that was made using pool noodles, an old bucket, Wellington boots, rubber gloves, solar panels and a computerized "brain."

David Harris Smith is an assistant professor at Hamilton's McMaster University who first came up with the idea of creating a collaborative art project centred around a hitchhiking robot.

"HitchBOT is travelling across the country, and it’s collecting stories as it goes, too. So it will ask if they have a story that they’d like to tell about travelling or hitchhiking," he said.

"We would love for hitchBOT to have some adventures. Of course, I’ve hitchhiked across the country several times and for young people it used to be almost a rite of passage."

'Yard sale esthetic'

Smith said hitchBOT is also an experiment that looks at the interaction between people and increasingly ubiquitous technology. 

"As we move into a world where we are going to be interacting with robots on a regular basis and we’re going to find ourselves in areas of our social life, assisting our [aging] parents, for instance … These robots, in their design, they need to be respectful of social customs, of cultural attitudes etcetera.," he said.

Smith calls hitchBOT's look "yard sale esthetic."

"It's made of things you might be pitching out of your garage on a Saturday morning to sell to your neighbours," he said.

The robot also has a child booster seat built into its buttocks.

"We wanted people to intuitively be able to understand, 'Oh yes, I can buckle this thing in to my car seat,' because, you know, safety first. We want it to be secure in the car," he said. 

HitchBOT will be powered with solar panels covering the beer cooler bucket that makes up its torso, and can also be recharged from car cigarette lighters or a regular outlet. But if hitchBOT's power runs out as it is waiting for its next ride, written instructions on its body will tell people how to strap it into the car and plug it in, and direct people to a help website.

The little robot will try to bum its first ride from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on July 27 by signalling with the only part of its body it can move — one arm. The researchers expect it to charm its way into enough rides to make it all the way to Victoria.

Robot to share adventure via social media

Along the way, hitchBOT will be sharing its adventures via social media — something that those who pick it up should be aware of, Smith told CBC News.

HitchBOT was being built by communications researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton. It will try to hitch its first ride from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on July 27. (Submitted by David Harris Smith)

"It'll be sort of like having an out-of-control teenager in your car, taking pictures of you and posting them to Facebook."

Like most teens, hitchBOT has a habit of talking back. It's programmed to recognize speech and has text to speech software installed. It even has access to Wikipedia where it can draw on conversation topics.

"These dialogue models, like [Apple’s] Siri, they listen for key words and try to develop appropriate responses," said Smith.

hitchBOT is also equipped with a GPS and 3G wireless connectivity that will allow it to post frequent updates of its position on the internet.

Smith admits privacy could be a concern, so they've built privacy settings into hitchBOT. It will ask permission before taking a picture, or ask those in the car to take a selfie with it. There will also be flesh and blood moderators sifting through the data collected.

"We still have human eyes looking at pictures and looking at stories before they get posted," he said.

Smith said since the tablet that acts as hitchBOT's electronic brain has been reprogrammed specifically for this purpose, there’s not a whole lot in the contraption worth stealing.

"I think anyone who steals it, might have some second thoughts … look at how annoying it is," joked Smith during an interview with CBC Radio's Information Morning, where hitchBOT kept interrupting.

"You may have an interesting conversation piece, but you’ve really subtracted all the fun out of the project."


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