Meet the Cute, Wellies-Wearing, Wikipedia-Reading Robot That's Going to Hitchhike Across Canada

"The physical form looks like somebody has cobbled together odds and ends to make the robot, such as pool noodles, bucket, cake saver, garden gloves, Wellies, etc."
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Artist's rendering of HitchBOT (HitchBOT.me)

When I first heard about hitchBOT, I figured it was a joke, or perhaps a thought experiment by Frauke Zeller, a roboticist at Ryerson University in Canada. 

I mean: how could a robot hitchhike across the country? Would its handlers be following behind it in a Dodge Caravan ensuring it made the trip safely? What would it even mean for this to happen?

But this is no joke. Zeller and a large team including co-creator David Harris Smith of McMaster University, are going to put their cute little bot on the side of the road in Halifax and hope that somehow the robot can talk its way to Victoria.

"This is both an artwork and social robotics experiment," Zeller and Harris told me in an email. "Usually, we are concerned whether we can trust robots, e.g. as helpers in our homes. But this project takes it the other way around and asks: can robots trust human beings?"

Seriously. I'm worried about hitchBOT! What if someone steals it? Or scavenges it for electronics components? (Of course, this is the point. They have engaged my puppy-belly-patting instinct, evolved over long eons on the savannah.) The bot itself is simple and had to be light enough for people to lift and strap into their cars. hitchBOT shaped like a bucket—well, actually, it is made out of a bucket—and it's wearing gardening gloves and Wellington boots. "It has some anthropomorphic features, albeit not many," they told me. "The physical form looks like somebody has cobbled together odds and ends to make the robot, such as pool noodles, bucket, cake saver, garden gloves, Wellies, etc."

It has no means of independent locomotion, so it's wholly dependent on humans for travel. It does, however, have basic machine vision and a microphone, so it can detect motion and speech. It can also speak, thanks to Frank Rudzicz of the University of Toronto. "hitchBOT will be able to carry on multiple conversations, simultaneously," Zeller and Herris said. "Some face-to-face, and others via social media."

hitchBOT's knowledge about the world comes from reading Wikipedia. Let's hope he's not a Wikipedant: "Actually, R2-D2 would properly be referred to as an astromech droid." If he is, we can blame Ryerson's Ebrahim Bagheri, who helped code the robot's API-ingestion of Wikipedia.

One detail that I love is that the bot—in addition to requesting safe passage westward toward Victoria—will also ask that people plug it into the cigarette lighters in their cars to charge its battery. How cute is that?

"We expect hitchBOT to be charming and trustworthy enough in its conversation to secure rides through Canada," they concluded.

After the robot hits the road on July 27, you can follow along on Instagram, Twitter, and at the bot's website: hitchBOT.me. For now, below, you can see a photo of the beer bucket body into which hitchBOT's electronics will be placed and on which its Wellies will be strapped. 

David Harris

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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