The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can robots trust humans? A hitchhiking bot will find out.

The anthropomorphic robot named HitchBOT sits on the shoulder of Highway 102 to begin its 6000 kilometer cross country journey outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 27, 2014. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

As you read this, a three-foot tall robot is likely strapped into the passenger seat of a stranger’s car, whizzing down some road outside Salem, Mass. Its pool-noodle legs, clad in yellow rain boots, are splayed out in front of it. Its solar panel-wrapped cylindrical body gleams in the sunlight. Its boxy face — which lacks a nose but features huge red LED eyes and an upside-down rainbow of a smile — swivels back and forth as it alternately makes conversation and peers out the window at the landscape passing by.

That’s if it’s lucky. If it’s unlucky this intrepid droid, dubbed “HitchBOT” by the Canadian engineers who created it, is still perched on the side of the road somewhere, arm extended, thumbing for a ride. Or, if it’s really unlucky, it’s already dead — destroyed by weather or the malice of humans.

Determining which scenario turns out to be the right one is part of the mission for HitchBOT, who was launched on a hitchhiking journey across the U.S. Friday. The robot comes equipped with a GPS tracker, a camera, an opposable thumb and a bucket list of American destinations it aims to reach in the weeks ahead, relying solely on rides from sympathetic strangers.

“It’s a very important question, to say, do we trust robots?” Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Ontario and co-creator of the robot, told the Salem News. “In science, we sometimes flip around questions and hope to gain new insight. That’s when we started to ask, ‘can robots trust humans?’”

[A robot killed a factory worker in Germany. So who should go on trial?]

This is not HitchBOT’s first solo jaunt on the open road.

Last summer the plucky bot, who communicates in a clipped, dour voice using an artificial intelligence program called Cleverspeak, hitchhiked from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia. It has also journeyed through Germany and “vacationed” at an art and theater festival in the Netherlands.

“I was quite concerned actually, but that’s part of the experiment,” Zeller said of her creation’s initial travels, in an interview with Boston Magazine.”But then it started to really become very popular on social media, and you could see how many positive sentiments there were, and then I wasn’t that concerned anymore suddenly.”

“Trust is a very important part of this experiment,” her co-designer David Harris Smith of McMaster University added. “There’s this issue of trust in popular media where we see a lot of dystopian visions of a future with robots that have gone rogue or out of control. In this case, we’ve designed something that actually needs human empathy to accomplish its goals.”

During its Canadian tour, which took 26 days, HitchBOT slept overnight at a campground, attended a Wikwemikong powwow, traveled with a heavy metal band and spent a week at a bar. This time around HitchBOT wants swing by Times Square, Disney World and the Grand Canyon on its route to San Francisco’s Exploratorium — a trip that could last just a few weeks or more than a year, depending on how diligent drivers are about getting HitchBOT to its next destination.

HitchBOT’s American adventures kicked off Thursday night with a festival at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Then Smith and Zeller took it to an undisclosed roadside somewhere nearby and abandoned HitchBOT to its fate.

It’s a weird feeling for Zeller, who is used to conducting experiments in the controlled environment of a lab. But if any robot is capable of making it on its own, the affable HitchBOT seems up to the challenge.

[Robots to the rescue, but not quite yet]

Built with an eye for what Smith called a”yard-sale aesthetic,” HitchBOT is designed for durability. Its body is made of recycled materials — a plastic beer pail torso, pool noodle limbs, an acrylic cake saver to protect its head and “brain” — and the whole thing is waterproof. A retractable tripod allows it to stand on the roadside, and a car seat attached to its torso lets its travel companions safely strap it in with a seat belt.

As a travel companion, HitchBOT is both an avid conversationalist and a dutiful chronicler of its expedition. Every 20 minutes it snaps a photo of what’s going on around it (though the team behind the robot seeks permission from the people in the photos before posting them online). The bot also sings, dances, tosses out trivia and talks — sometimes incessantly.

“It can be quite chatty,” Zeller told Boston Magazine. “Sometimes it’s a little annoying, and it doesn’t shut up, but you can tell it to be quiet.”

Aside from the camera and the GPS tracker, Zeller and Smith have no means of keeping track of their roving robot. So far they have had no reason to believe that HitchBOT has encountered anything nefarious, but they also have no evidence that it hasn’t. For now, that’s the way they want to keep it.

“We want to be very careful to avoid surveillance technologies with this; that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” Smith told the Associated Press.

Aside from keeping its battery charged (HitchBOT can be plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter or a wall outlet), and leaving the robot along roads where it can get picked up, Zeller and Smith don’t have too many expectations of HitchBOT’s hosts.

“We want to see what people do with this kind of technology when we leave it up to them,” Zeller told the Associated Press. “It’s an art project in the wild — it invites people to participate.”