HitchBOT heads on adventure in Germany

The twin of hitchBOT, a chatty internet-connected robot that hitchhiked across Canada last summer will soon find out if Germans are as kind as Canadians.

Researchers interested to see whether Germans will treat robot as well as Canadians

Canada's hitchBOT is scheduled to hitchhike across Germany from Feb. 13 to 22. (Twitter)

The twin of hitchBOT, a chatty internet-connected robot that hitchhiked across Canada last summer will soon find out if Germans are as kind as Canadians.

The child-sized robot is scheduled to try its hand — or at least its thumb —at hitchhiking in Germany starting Feb. 13, the hitchBOT team announced Monday.

It will complete its road trip around the country on Feb. 22 — provided enough Germans offer it rides.

The robot will be almost identical to its predecessor, built from odds and ends such as a beer cooler bucket, pool noodles, and rubber boots and gloves. Like the original hitchBOT, it will only be able to move one arm, relying on the kindness of strangers to help complete its journey. It's equipped with speech-recognition technology that lets it chat with the people it meets; a GPS and cellular wireless connectivity so it can post updates of its location to the internet; and the ability to draw on Wikipedia for conversation topics worthy of its "trivia-loving" persona. 

The first hitchBOT travelled 6,000 kilometres from Halifax to Victoria last summer, with the help of the new Canadian friends it made along the way. It posted frequent updates of its adventures on Twitter and Facebook.

The robot was created by communications researchers David Harris Smith at McMaster University in Hamilton and Frauke Zeller at Ryerson University in Toronto. They envisioned it as a collaborative art project exploring trust and interactions between humans and robots.

Zeller, who is from Germany herself, said the team is excited to explore the new challenges hitchBOT will face during its upcoming adventure.

For one thing, its speech recognition technology will have to deal with a new language with many different dialects

"Hitchhiking on the autobahn, where people go 300 kilometres or more per hour – that's not going to be easy," she added.

But the team will be getting some support from the German broadcaster ProSiebenSat1, which will follow hitchBOT's journey on its prime-time edutainment show, Galileo.

Zeller said she has already been asked if Germans are expected to be as helpful to the robot as Canadians.

"What I think," she said, "is if you see something helpless, that you want to help … every human being wants to help."

Canadians set high bar

But she added that Canadians have set the bar quite high with the way they treated hitchBOT last summer. Not only did they offer it rides, but they also gave it black nailpolish and jewelry, among other things: "They created this kind of collaborative artwork together."

Those following the robot's adventures on social media also emailed the researchers en masse with messages of concern whenever it didn't move for a few hours.

"So that will be interesting to see – whether it gets the same overwhelming care in Germany."

The robot heading to Germany is almost identical to the one that journeyed across Canada, but will have a better, longer-lasting battery. It will also be programmed with the German language and cultural information, such as popular TV shows, to help it make small talk, Zeller said.

"It's a lot more work than you might think to prepare a robot for a different country," she said.


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