Hitchhiking robot has survived one third of journey across Canada


Here’s Hitchbot, patiently waiting for a ride in Ontario. (Kenneth Armstrong/Reuters)

Its chest is a Coors Light beer bucket wrapped in solar panels. Those Gumby-esque arms and legs? Pool noodles. It’s programmed to carry on conversation with knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia. What the heck is going on here?

“I am hoping to make new friends, have interesting conversations and see new places along the way,” it says in a video explaining its trip from Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia.

Hitchbot isn’t your typical hitchhiker. At first glance it appears to be nothing more than a joke. But two Canadian communications professors created Hitchbot as something of a social experiment.

“This is an emergent piece of culture theater, an artwork that’s meant to reframe our thinking about how we adopt and integrate technologies into our social and cultural life,” Prof. David Smith, told Global News.

Here's Hitchbot, posing with two Belgian tourists in Ontario. (Kenneth Armstrong/Reuters)
Hitchbot poses with two Belgian tourists in Ontario. (Kenneth Armstrong/Reuter)

“It would love to have some sleepovers, or if you have a great party, you know,” added Frauke Zeller, the other professor behind Hitchbot.

So far, Hitchbot appears to have had a peaceful and happy journey. No one has kidnapped it and stripped it for some of its $2,000 in parts.

Instead, travelers have embraced Hitchbot, posting gleeful images with the robot. It’s gone on a shopping spree at Wal-Mart, been fed screws and motor oil for lunch, and been posed for at least one silly photo on a toilet. Between Facebook and Twitter, more than 57,000 people are following it on social media. Its progress can be tracked thanks to an internal GPS device and 3G connection. (Hitchbot is currently just east of Lake Superior.)

While Zeller and Smith are often coy in interviews about if they’re trying to prove anything, the lessons seems to be that hitching isn’t that dangerous, and humans and machines can co-exist, provided we take some responsibility for them.

Smith has hitchhiked across North America three times and described it as some of the best experiences of his life. He explained to Radio Canada International that Hitchbot is a case of participatory engagement.

“With some of the questions we’re raising now around robotics, often that discourse tends toward the dystopian future. Well, perhaps robots will take over. This project kind of stands that discourse on its head and says well, you know, technology is us, we create it and how do we integrate these technologies,” Smith said.

Zeller and Smith want Hitchbot to get as many rides as possible. Here’s hoping one of those rides comes from a Google self-driving car.


In late July Frauke Zeller, left, and David Smith left Hitchbot outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it received its first ride. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

Hitchbot was made about the size of a child, so travelers are more likely to feel protective of the robot and look out for it. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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