Hitchhiking robot thumbs its way across Canada

Aug 02, 2014 by Michel Comte
This photo obtained July 31, 2014 shows creators Dr. Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University and Dr. David Harris Smith of McMaster University with hitchBOT

A talking robot assembled from household odds and ends is hitchhiking thousands of kilometers across Canada this summer as part of a social experiment to see if those of its kind can trust humans.

Society is "usually concerned with whether we can trust robots," Frauke Zeller, co-creator of the "hitchBot," told AFP.

Hollywood movies like "The Terminator" and "The Matrix" often depict machines as enemies of mankind, according to the assistant professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.

But, she noted, quite the opposite is true of hitchBot.

"This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, 'Can robots trust humans?'" Zeller said.

"Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots, and notions of safety and trust."

Zeller and fellow professor David Smith of McMaster University, along with a team of specialists, designed hitchBot to be fully dependent on people.

"It cannot achieve its task of hitchhiking across Canada without the help of people, because it cannot move by itself," she said.

And hitchBot certainly has what it takes to charm its way into people's hearts.

It can strike up a conversation and can answer trivia questions by consulting information using its built-in computers.

And it will even tell you when it's tired and in need of recharging from your car's cigarette lighter.

HitchBot has what has been described by Canadian media as a "yard-sale aesthetic," built for about $1,000 from parts found in a typical Canadian home or hardware store.

It has an LED-lit smiley face wrapped in a transparent cake saver set atop a plastic beer pail wrapped in a solar panel, with swimming pool noodles for limbs.

Its feet are rubber boots and it wears yellow latex gloves—including one with its thumb extended to show it wants to catch a ride.

The automaton's design couldn't be too heavy because it had to be manually lifted into a car.

The robot also had to be small enough to fit into the backseat of a car but still have enough heft so it would not be blown over by a gust of wind while hitchhiking on the side of the road.

And it had to be resistant to chilly temperatures common during Canadian late summer nights.

"It had to be sturdy but also appealing to people," Zeller said.

"We wanted people to feel like, 'Yeah, I should stop to help that robot.'"

And that's exactly what's been happening.

It began its trip on July 27 in Canada's Atlantic port city of Halifax, after being picked up by an elderly couple in a camper van.

They handed it off after a night in the Canadian outback to three young men from Quebec province.

HitchBot then zipped through eastern Canada to Toronto for a brief check-in with its creators before hitting the road again. It is ultimately headed for the country's westernmost city of Victoria—more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from its starting point.

Rooting for hitchBot

The trip is being documented on social media (www.hitchBot.me), allowing people around the world to connect with the robot.

Less than 24 hours after it began its journey, it had already snapped up 12,000 followers on Twitter, including one fan who posted a photo of a cardboard box look-alike.

By Friday, the number of Twitter followers was nearly 20,000.

"Everyone is rooting for it," Zeller said.

"It's an interesting phenomenon—people are developing attachments to the robot, including many who (will) never meet hitchBot, but are following it on ."

Once its travels are over, researchers will analyze comments posted on Twitter and Facebook to see what they can surmise about the public's attitudes concerning robot-human interactions.

With growing use of mechanical humanoids in space, manufacturing and everyday life, "it's becoming more important to explore our relationship with robots—especially if they come into our households," Zeller said.

Particularly interesting, she added, is the question of whether robots will be seen as disposable as they age and break down.

"What do we do when they will need to be repaired?" Zeller said, suggesting that some people may become attached to the little humanoids and will "keep and cherish" them.

"Do we repair them, or will they become just another convenient item that we can throw away?" she asked.

"We have to study all of that to ensure it works out right."

Explore further: Japan PM Abe wants to stage 2020 Robot Olympics

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User comments : 12

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thingumbobesquire
1 / 5 (3) Aug 02, 2014
Ah yes. We need billions more funding for these kinds of crucial experiments...
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (3) Aug 02, 2014
Meanwhile...
over 700 people have died from Ebola virus...
Thousands more in myriad conflicts around the world...
Is there some sort of disconnect here?
strangedays
not rated yet Aug 02, 2014
Idiot - thingubob. AI is probably the most important front in science. Once machines can think better than we can - progress accelerates. How we interact with our AI counterparts is a fascinating world of study. Watch the movie 'Her'.

Some people understand where things are going.
strangedays
not rated yet Aug 02, 2014
Meanwhile...
over 700 people have died from Ebola virus...
Thousands more in myriad conflicts around the world...
Is there some sort of disconnect here?


Are you also upset about the $600 billion and counting we have spent on a fighter jet that we don't need - and may never work properly?

http://reason.com...f-35-fig
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2014
Meanwhile...
over 700 people have died from Ebola virus...
Thousands more in myriad conflicts around the world...
Is there some sort of disconnect here?


Are you also upset about the $600 billion and counting we have spent on a fighter jet that we don't need - and may never work properly?

Thanks, Strange. Yes, and that's just another example of what I am talking about...
sirchick
not rated yet Aug 02, 2014
Meanwhile...
over 700 people have died from Ebola virus...
Thousands more in myriad conflicts around the world...
Is there some sort of disconnect here?


Yes, and whilst that is going on, you are commenting on the internet doing sweet F all to help in this world... what is your point exactly?????

It's clearly evident they do not specialise in the Ebola virus nor does 99% of all scientists/medical professions.
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2014
Sirchick,
You have no idea "what the F all" I do in this world. Nor do you have any idea of what my comment meant.
Just out of curiousity - what the F all are YOU doing to help anything? Did you my comment make you feel guilty? Or helpless?
Think about it...
strangedays
not rated yet Aug 03, 2014
Thanks, Strange. Yes, and that's just another example of what I am talking about...


Thanks - seems we are in agreement. Often there seems to be a willingness to be critical of science (some of which can seem a little quirky), but then to make excuses for some of the more blatant excesses.

On the issue of what to do about our crazy world. I think we also agree. I read into your comment - that we all have to live our own lives - and in a very difficult environment - make our own decisions about how to respond to the insanity of so much of what we see. Not for others to judge.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2014
C'mon guys. they built this for 1000$ with mostly people volunteering their time for an experiment that explores new regions of human-machine interaction.
If you have to gripe about this kind of stuff 'wasting money' then you're really barking up the wrong tree in the wrong forrest on the wrong continent on the wrong planet.

Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Aug 04, 2014
Personally, I think it just started as a gag...
sirchick
5 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2014
Sirchick,
You have no idea "what the F all" I do in this world. Nor do you have any idea of what my comment meant.
Just out of curiousity - what the F all are YOU doing to help anything? Did you my comment make you feel guilty? Or helpless?
Think about it...


For one thing i am not shunning other scientists for doing something that can be useful to society by suggesting they are wasting their time on something when there are more important things to do.. implying their work has no importance.

Clearly you're not doing much if you bring up the Ebola virus, like what has that go to do with this article at all... why derail with such an off topic subject?

Should we tell those working on the LHC to ditch that too and work on Ebola virus? Or how about we tell the scientists working robots on Mars to quit their jobs and start finding solutions to poverty? We need scientists doing every subject not just one thing... it doesn't make any sense why you mention something so off topic.
Tachyon8491
5 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2014
This experiment may appear simplistic - yet it has ground-breaking components that can assist in developing a valuable empirical insight into human/AI interaction - that is certainly aimed at a pragmatic future.