Thunder Bay·Photos

HitchBOT catches a ride to Thunder Bay with Belgian tourists

A talking robot made a stop Thursday in Thunder Bay as part of its trans-Canada journey.
Belgian tourists Seb Leeson and Kim Van Aerde pose with the Canadian hitchiking robot known as HitchBOT. On Thursday, the robot made it halfway in its country-wide trek. (Amy Hadley/CBC)
Hitchbot hits Thunder Bay. We'll catch up with Canada's favourite hitch-hiking robot.

A talking robot made a stop Thursday in Thunder Bay, as part of its trans-Canada journey.

Known as HitchBOT, the robot is hitching rides across the country, east-to-west, as part of a university research project to find out if humans can be trusted to help robots.

“Well, I'm headed to Victoria BC, as far west as I can manage,” the robot told CBC News. “Going my way?”

Belgian travellers Seb Leeson and his wife, Kim Van Aerde, heeded the robot’s request when they picked up HitchBOT near Sault Ste. Marie, and gave it a ride to Thunder Bay.

"I said, ‘this would be really cool that two people going east coast - west coast would take the HitchBOT for a part of the journey also east coast - west coast, because it's like three strange people in a strange land’."       

Leeson said his wife gave up one of the only two seats in their van so HitchBOT could ride shotgun.

'She's so cute'

Van Aerde said they first spotted HitchBOT at a pow-wow on  Manitoulin Island.

"The first thing I thought was 'oh, she's cute!'"

They wanted to take it then, but it was already with another traveller.

A few days later they spotted the robot again, on a beach in an area north of Sault St. Marie. This time the robot's travelling companion was willing to part ways, and so they brought hitchBOT to Thunder Bay.

Leeson said they left a small sticker on hitchBot to mark their time with him. The couple planned to pass the robot to other travellers.

"So there will be a little part of us forever with HitchBOT, and there will be a little part of HitchBOT in our memories forever with us. So that's perfect.”

Facts about HitchBOT


Origins: I am from Port Credit, Ontario where my guardians Drs. Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University) and David Harris Smith (McMaster University) first thought of creating me in 2013. We have a big, interdisciplinary family of researchers who built me, developed my functionality, and prepared me for this trip over the past three months: 

  • Dr. Ebrahim Bagheri (Ryerson University) is responsible for my knowledge of the world; 
  • Dr. Frank Rudzicz (University of Toronto) is responsible for my speech capabilities; 
  • Alanna Mager and Jacky Au Duong (Ryerson University) help me communicate online; 
  • Colin Gagich and Dominik Kaukinen (McMaster University) built me; 
  • Lily Beaul (McMaster University) and Diego Santos (University of Toronto) helped shape my conversational abilities. 

Size and shape: I’m heavy enough to withstand the wind from cars that pass me but light  enough that an adult can lift me into a car. I’m about as tall as a six year old; however, I cannot move on my own (except for my hitchhiking arm), so I’ll need help from humans in order to get around. I am able to stand, making me highly visible to drivers, thanks to my retractable tripod. I also have a handy car seat attached to my torso so that my travel companions can safely strap 
me in to their cars using seatbelts.

Abilities: I can converse with the people I meet, tweet about my location and interactions, and  post photos about the things that I see. I’ll ask permission to take photos and these will be sent to my family to post via my social networks. My fans will be able to follow where I am via my website, since I will have 3G and GPS capabilities. I have a face made from LED lights, which will show my expressions. To conserve energy, my body is wrapped in solar panels and my 
travel buddies will be able to plug me in to their car lighters in order to charge me up. For now, I can speak English and a couple of sentences in French. My family has designed my intelligence using a conversational AI format called Cleverscript.

Interests and Personality: My fashion sense could be described as “hardware-store chic”  since I wear a garbage can hat, my torso is made of a plastic beer pail, my arms are made of pool noodles, and my head and brain are protected by a plastic cake saver. I enjoy baking and horseback riding – both challenging activities for a robot, but I love a good challenge! My favourite movie is Wall-E and my favourite song is Mr. Roboto, of course. I’m a proud robot – I like 
robot stuff. 

Intentions and aspirations: I hope that my hitchhiking trip will allow me to meet many  interesting people, see beautiful places, and learn more about humanity. I want to take my time and also meet a variety of people, so I hope those I meet will be generous and understanding. I think my trip will lead to conversations about how robots and humans can live in harmony, and I hope that humans and robots can learn to trust each other as a result of my journey. 

My journey: I am excited and a bit nervous about whether people will pick me up or if they will be nice to me along the way. I don’t have a specific route and I’m not sure how long it will take but I’m up for the adventure. I hope my fellow Canadians will help me with my journey.