On the Road Again: hitchBOT Hitchhikes Across America

They’ll wait patiently to see if and when hitchBOT will arrive in San Francisco

Remember me from last year?

“I am hitchBOT — a robot from Port Credit, Ontario.

“Last summer I hitchhiked across Canada from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia. In just 26 days I hitched a total of 19 rides and traveled over 6213 miles [10,000 kilometers]. Since then, I visited Germany to explore cities like Munich, Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg. I also took a vacation to the Netherlands to see some of Twente’s most notable arts and culture locations.”

That’s how hitchBOT opens its blog, readying for its latest adventure: hitchhiking across America from Massachusetts to California, beginning with a send-off party on July 17.

Take a listen to what’s up ahead for hitchBOT:

BOSTON.COM: On July 17, hitchBOT, a robot built by two communications professors in Canada, will put up its thumb on the side of a highway in Massachusetts, asking a stranger for a ride and thus embarking on a journey across the U.S.

Standing three feet tall and sporting newly shined wellies, hitchBOT comes equipped with speech technology, a GPS system, and a bucket list. On its trip across the U.S., it hopes to see

Times Square in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon, depending solely on the goodwill of strangers to cross the items off the list and make it to its final destination, the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

“Trust is a very important part of this experiment,” says Dr. David Harris Smith of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, who co-designed hitchBOT with Dr. Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University in Toronto. “There’s this issue of trust in popular media where we see a lot of dystopian visions of a future with robots that have gone rogue or out of control. In this case, we’ve designed something that actually needs human empathy to accomplish its goals.”

Although hitchBOT is programmed to periodically take photos, which are then selectively published on social media by Harris Smith and Zeller, and its location is tracked on a map, its interactions with people are not otherwise surveilled.

“We really were very strict about recognizing people’s privacy,” said Zeller. “We want to focus on trust, and we want to have this really genuinely developed robot.”

Zeller and Harris Smith have been making improvements to hitchBOT following each trip, and for its trek across the U.S., the robot comes equipped with a battery meter and upgraded speech recognition—it now emits a small beep to indicate when it’s listening.

“It can be quite chatty,” said Zeller. “Sometimes it’s a little annoying, and it doesn’t shut up, but you can tell it to be quiet.”

For other troubleshooting issues—What if he’s babbling nonsense? What if he runs out of power?—hitchBOT’s new friends can refer to the “Help” section on its website.

Before sending hitchBOT off on his journey on an undisclosed highway—it’s important that the first interaction is spontaneous, not orchestrated—Harris Smith and Zeller are giving it a proper goodbye party on July 16 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. After that, they’ll wait patiently to see if and when hitchBOT will arrive in San Francisco.

See full story: HitchBOT the Hitchhiking Robot


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