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Meet Hitchbot, the Robot Hitchhiking His Way Across Canada

While picking up hitchhikers is generally considered unsafe, Canadian motorists are going to find it difficult to refuse this cute, fun-loving robot. His name is Hitchbot, and he’s about the size of a six-year-old child. Equipped with a GPS, 3G wireless connectivity, a camera, and a built-in child booster seat in its bum, he will soon try to catch rides all the way across Canada – from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Throughout the coast-to-coast journey that starts on July 27, Hitchbot will be completely by himself. He is expected to find rides by signalling with the only movable part of its tiny body – his arm. He can talk too; researchers are expecting him to be able to charm his way into getting the rides that he needs. Along the way, he will even share all his adventures via social media. “It’ll sort of be like having an out-of-control teenager in your car, taking pictures of you and posting them on Facebook,” said David Harris Smith, the brains behind the project.

“Simply put, I am a free-spirited robot who wants to explore Canada and meet new friends along the way,” Hitchbot declares on his website. According to Smith, “Hitchbot can ask people if they have a story they would like to share with others and this would be posted as video to Hitchbot.me. We will moderate posts to avoid inappropriate content.”

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Smith, an assistant professor at McMaster University, first came up with the idea of creating a collaborative art project centered around a hitchhiking robot. He then collaborated with researchers from various universities to develop the project. And even though Hitchbot’s creators are researchers, the robot isn’t actually a part of a research project. “We are releasing it, really, into the wild,” said Frauke Zeller, another lead researcher on the project and assistant professor at Ryerson University.

“A lot of discourse around robots has been, you know, will they take over, can we trust robots?” said Smith. “And this art piece very deftly reverses that whole discussion – can robots trust people?” But Hitchbot can’t really move, so he won’t have much of a choice about whom to trust and whom not to. All he can do is accept rides and post his experiences on social media, through his virtual self. “Basically, the whole nation is watching via social media,” said Zeller.

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“We believe that through this artwork, we can learn a lot also in terms of social robotics, how we approach robots (in the wild, that is, in non-restricted, non-observed environments), and whether we interact with them and if yes, how,” said Smith. “If people want to take it home to meet the family or to a party or something, they can do that – if Hitchbot consents. It’s up for adventures along the way.”

What he lacks in terms of mobility, Hitchbot makes up through superior communication skills. His features are aimed at gaining the trust of humans – like voice recognition and processing abilities that will enable him to make small talk. He will also be able to refer to Wikipedia for conversation topics, and his LED screen can message humans using text, while making facial expression as well. At the same time, Hitchbot is capable of simultaneously carrying out multiple text conversations with several people over the internet.

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“In the event that Hitchbot is roadside overnight it will entertain itself by tweeting and taking photos until dawn or the next ride,” Smith clarified. “Hitchbot provides speech and signed instructions for safe placement on the gravel shoulder, or if no safe place can be found to place Hitchbot it will suggest that drivers leave it at a roadside coffee shop.”

Surprisingly, Hitchbot is made from low-tech, everyday materials – he has a beer cooler bucket for a torso and a cake saver for a head. The cake saver is meant to protect all of his artificial brain parts, including LEDs, plastic bearings, motors and a mirror.

He is powered by solar panels that cover his torso, and he can also be recharged using car cigarette lighters or regular outlets. If his power happens to run out while he is waiting for a ride, the writing on his body will instruct people on how to strap him into the car and plug him in.

If you’re interested in following this unique robot’s hitchhiking journey, you could do so on the official websiteTwitter, or Instagram.

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