Meet HitchBot — a hitchhiking robot that made its way across Canada this summer

Photo courtesy Ryerson University

HitchBOT returns to Ryerson

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By Victoria Shariati

There is a robot with a beer cooler for a body and a cake server for a head. One that would make anyone take a second glance if it was perched at the side of the road — hitching for a ride.

That robot in question, aptly named hitchBOT, hitchhiked from Nova Scotia to British Columbia last summer. It began its trip on July 27 and after hitching 19 rides, it ended its 6,000 km journey a mere three weeks later.

The speedy trip was helped in part by the media frenzy it garnered. HitchBOT not only sparked an interest for technology in Canada, but also across the world.

On Nov. 17, the celebrity robot made its way over to Ryerson. Joining Hitchbot, were members of its “family.” Speaking over an abundance of interruptions from the sassy robot were professors Frauke Zeller and David Smith, along with team members Alanna Mager, Jacky Au Duong, Lily Beaul, Dominik Kaukinen, Colin Gagich, and Meaghan Carrocci.

Zeller, an assistant professor of professional communication at Ryerson, and Smith wanted to see if Canadians could be trusted to safely transport an unassuming robot from one city to the next. They expected their brainchild to be charming enough to secure rides, but the question was not if humans could trust robots — it was whether robots could trust humans?

Unfortunately, Hitchbot didn’t have the charisma its loving guardians hoped it would have.

Well, not at first at least.

The co-creator of the robot’s persona, Jacky Au Duong, spoke of the curious day that HitchBOT turned rude.

After having its own Twitter account set up, the robot gained a following of 32.7K. Its creators were surprised when HitchBOT started to tweet on its own, answering questions and posting photos.

As impressive as that may seem, the responses it was giving were not exactly coherent, nor were they polite.

When asked questions like, “what’s your favourite colour?” Hitchbot responded by telling its fans that they were being rude. The moody behaviour continued until someone from the team got ahold of the robot’s raging.

Mager, HitchBOT’s “social media godmother,” said that the robot made a guest appearance at a wedding in the mountaintops of British Columbia.

She said that the event was definitely a public favourite and that it was not orchestrated. Three men from Saskatchewan brought the travelling robot to the border of Alberta, where they met some people who were attending a wedding.

Mager said that her favourite HitchBOT adventure moment was when the robot did the Harlem Shake with the same three Saskatchewan men. Photos were included.

However, the story of Hitchbot didn’t go off without a hitch. The team ran into some problems weatherproofing the robot, as an electronic machine can’t come into contact with water.

According to Smith, the team also had some troubles when it came to figuring out the program for HitchBOT’s language processing. He said that after purchasing all kinds of electronic components, they decided to use a tablet instead.

As for the robot’s interactions with kids, Zeller said that when they put HitchBOT on the streets in Halifax, it was approached by several children. Some even asked if the robot had feelings.

A little boy asked Zeller if she “was the woman who built the robot.” When she confirmed that she was, he replied that he wanted to build robots too when he grew up.

Now, the most pressing question: is HitchBOT a boy or a girl? The answer is neither.

“I want to see what people make out of it,” Zeller said. On social media, there were several comments that said the robot looked like a guy. Listening to it though, one can assume the voice sounds female.

Zeller said that the HitchBOT’s experiences allowed her to gain insight into how people treat robots. She was also able to analyze all the data they gathered through social media and how the world is changing their view on technology.

“I think it’s a very interesting social premise, to leave a robot out in the open and hope that someone will pick it up,” said Rachel Lam, a Ryerson student at the event.

She said that as impressive as the robot’s expedition was, she wouldn’t go hitchhiking on her own but would consider tagging along with the nation’s superstar.

“If I was with Hitchbot — I would be safe,” Lam said.

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