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What This Hitchhiking Robot Can Teach Us About Ourselves

by Rafi Schwartz

July 20, 2015
image via vimeo screen capture

People spend an awful lot of time these days wondering (and worrying) about autonomous automobiles, and for good reason: As the pace of technological progress picks up, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll soon be sharing the roads with robot-driven cars. But this summer it’s not robots driving cars that should interest you. It’s cars driving robots. Specifically, a hitchhiking robot making a trek across the United States, thanks to any drivers-by who feel like taking a chance on a semi-anthropomorphic bot sticking his thumb out on the side of the road. 

HitchBOT stands about three feet tall, and looks something like a high-tech trash can with wobbly arms and legs that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be swimming pool noodles. He’s the brainchild of Canadian researchers who have equipped the rambling robot with a GPS tracker, camera, and a list of desired destinations like New York’s Times Square, and The Grand Canyon. Last week, HitchBOT set out on his cross-country journey, setting forth from Salem, Massachusetts’ Peabody Essex Museum toward his intended destination of San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Along the way, hitchBOT will be wholly at the mercy of two x-factors: The weather, and human beings. 

While any weather the plucky robot may face is entirely out of our control, hitchBOT’s “family” of programmers and builders is intensely curious about the second of those two x-factors–people. Speaking with The Salem News, Frauke Zeller, a professor at Ontario’s Ryerson University and hitchBOT co-creator, explains: “It’s a very important question, to say, do we trust robots? In science, we sometimes flip around questions and hope to gain new insight. That’s when we started to ask, ‘can robots trust humans?’

image via vimeo screen capture

That question—can we be trusted with something as singular and intriguing as a hitchhiking robot, alone in the world—is at the heart of hitchBOT’s journey. It’s an interesting reversal on the well-worn trope of dystopian future in which humans are at the whim of robotic overlords, whether malevolently self-aware, or simply malfunctioning without regard for human life. “In this case,” says hitchBOT co-creator and McMaster University Professor David Harris Smith, “we’ve designed something that actually needs human empathy to accomplish its goals.” As it happens, though, hitchBOT is no amateur when it comes to completing cross-country trips. The robot has already made similar treks across both Germany, and its home country of Canada, both times completing his journey safe and sound, thanks to the help of friendly folks along the way.

The bot is designed to be as good a road trip companion as could reasonably be expected from a three foot tall automaton; it is programmed to snap a photo of his surroundings every twenty minutes which, if given permission from the human driver at the time, is then uploaded to hitchBOT’s various social media properties. According to The Washington Post, hitchBOT is also programmed to sing, ask trivia questions, and make simple, pre-programmed conversation with whomever is driving it around at the time. Other than that, all hitchBOT needs is a good battery charge (in addition to wall outlets, he can be plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter) and the kindness of strangers, and he’s good to go. And go he has. In the days since hitchBOT was released on July 17th, he’s already been all over the towns north of Boston, and even took a brief excursion out to sea: 

There’s no definitive timeline for hitchBOT’s full road trip. When he makes it to his final destination—if at all—is entirely in the hands of whomever happens to find the little robot next. In the meantime, though, anyone can follow hitchBOT’s adventures on twitter, as well as mapped on his website

So, while the odds are slim that you’ll actually encounter hitchBOT out there on the roads, keep an eye out for the little guy anyway. And if you do see him sitting on the side of the road, pull over and pick him up. You won’t only be part of a nifty art project and sociological experiment, but you’ll also be helping make the case that, yes, when it comes to adorable traveling robots, humans can be trusted, after all.

[via washington post]

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What This Hitchhiking Robot Can Teach Us About Ourselves