Robot hitchhikes halfway across Canada

6 Aug 2014

hitchBOT, ready to roll on his road trip across Canada. Image via hitchBOT website

A robot named hitchBOT made out of household items has hitchhiked halfway across Canada on a cross-country journey to help researchers study human kindness and artificial intelligence.

“This is both an artwork and social robotics experiment,” said David Harris Smith, a professor of communications at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and one of hitchBOT’s co-creators.

“Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots, for example, as helpers in our homes. But this project takes it the other way around and asks: can robots trust human beings?”

HitchBOT left the province of Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast, on 27 July. Researchers hope motorists will give the robot rides across the country to reach the province of British Columbia, on the west coast, by the end of the summer.

‘Hardware-store chic’

HitchBOT can be easily spotted, since he is wearing the latest in ‘hardware-store chic’: a hat made out of a rubbish bin lid and wellies on his feet. A plastic beer bucket, pool noodles, and a plastic cake saver have also been used to build the robot, which is enveloped in solar panels to help hitchBOT conserve energy.

Once a driver picks up hitchBOT, the robot asks him or her to plug him into the car lighter to charge him up.

HitchBOT has one hitchhiking arm that can raise itself, a face made from LED lights, which show his expressions, and the ability to speak English – he’ll even apologise for being kind of weird – and a couple of sentences in French.

Researchers have designed hitchBOT’s intelligence using a conversational artificial intelligence format called Cleverscript.

While out on the road, hitchBOT can tweet about his location and interactions, post photos of what he sees, and enable followers to check up on him via his website, as the robot is also equipped with 3G and GPS capabilities. This way, researchers can also track what he encounters on the trip.

Researchers have said the response to hitchBOT has been positive so far, with people of all ages having embraced the robot.

At time of writing, hitchBOT has reached Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic