If you’re taking a road trip this summer, you might run into a strange-looking hitchhiker. But you don’t have to worry about giving this traveler a ride …
in fact, you’d be helping to make history!
hitchBOT is a robot from Ontario, Canada. She’s already traveled … on her own! … across Canada and Germany. Then, in her own words, “I took a much-needed arts and culture vacation in the Netherlands. But what can I say … I am a free-spirited robot that loves to keep busy!” (hitchBOT’s creators refer to her as “it,” but “it” has a distinctively female voice. And yep, you heard that right … hitchBOT speaks!)
hitchBOT is the brainchild of Dr. David Harris Smith, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, and Dr. Frauke Zeller, Assistant Professor of Professional Communication at Ryerson University, who worked with a collaborative, interdisciplinary team of researchers from the fields of visual arts, engineering, computer science, and communication with an unusual goal in mind. “Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots,” says Zeller, “but this project takes it the other way around and asks: Can robots trust human beings?”
“We expect hitchBOT to be charming and trustworthy enough in its conversation to secure rides through Canada,” said Zeller at the beginning of the experiment. And, after the first three legs of her adventure, he reports, “hitchBOT was very well received as it made its way across Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, proving that robots can, indeed, trust humans.”
Humans can pass hitchBOT along to another traveler, leave her at a restaurant or shop, or simply use her kickstand to leave her on the roadside with her thumb raised for a ride. “It has a really low-tech look to it, something we dubbed the ‘yard-sale aesthetic,'” said Harris Smith, to help deter thieves. “The head is actually an acrylic cake-saver. hitchBOT looks like somebody has cobbled together odds and ends, like pool noodles, bucket, cake saver, garden gloves, and Wellies.”
In her own words, hitchBOT adds, “I am approximately 3 feet tall and weigh about 25 pounds. I have camera vision, a microphone, and a speaker system, which gives me the ability to see, hear, and speak. I also have a sense of space, thanks to my 3G and GPS capabilities, and I am aware of where I am and where I want to go next. For my trip across America, my family has been kind enough to install a battery meter on my beer-bucket torso. It can tell my new friends how much energy I have left (so they can avoid a crankyBOT!) and whether it is difficult for me to understand them.”
On July 17, hitchBOT hit the road in America for a cross-country tour, starting at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She’ll hitch her way to San Francisco, one ride at a time, to end up at the Exploratorium. In honor of her beer-bucket torso, she’s even prepared a bucket list of things she would like to see and do while traveling the U.S., including visiting Times Square in New York City, Millennium Park in Illinois, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.