If there’s one message mom and dad taught us when learning to drive, it was to never stop for strangers — never mind an object with pool-noodle arms. But hitchBOT, Canada’s first hitchhiking robot, is hoping to find a way from Salem to San Francisco with a little help from the public.
HitchBOT’s American journey will begin with a kick-off party on July 16 at the Peabody Essex Museum. The robot will then be set free on July 17 in Salem, waiting on the side of the road for a friend.
The English-speaking robot is about the size of a 6-year-old and has a bucket frame, garden gloved-hands, and yellow rain boots. It’s the brainchild of two college professors, David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University.
The objective is to see if robots can trust humans. Using Cleverscript, artificial intelligence software that was developed in the UK, hitchBOT is programmed to respond to simple questions about its previous adventures and favorite pastimes, and can use Wikipedia to look up information.
Unlike R2D2, this bot cannot move on its own, except for its hitchhiking thumb. As it makes the journey, Zeller and Smith will follow the robot via the installed GPS and blog about the activities on Storify, relying on the public to post photos and videos of the bot’s travels on social media.
Once hitchBOT arrives at a destination, its creators have found that it’s only a matter of time until the robot finds its next ride.
“It’s not the perfect robot. It’s not $100,000,” Zeller said. “Sometimes the speech recognition doesn’t work perfectly well, but that doesn’t matter. It has brought humans closer together.”
This is hitchBOT’s fourth major journey, after completing treks across Canada in 2014 and Germany and the Netherlands in 2015. But unlike its previous travels, the US journey comes with a bucket list: The creators are asking the public to check off locations from a list posted on Facebook and Twitter, which include Times Square, Millennium Park in Chicago, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon.
“It’s a type of emergent narrative,” Smith said. “Nobody knows for certain how it will branch or what kinds of adventures will happen.” Social media followers can keep track of hitchBOT using the hashtag #hitchBOTinUSA.
Zeller and Smith have found that following hitchBOT has helped shape how people feel about hitchhikers. When the bot was in British Columbia at the end of his Canada journey, a hitchhiker told Smith that he bummed rides across the country several days behind hitchBOT. He received two rides from people who said they normally never pick up hitchhikers, but since the drivers had been following the story of hitchBOT, they decided to pull over and offer a ride.
“This is a behavioral shift that got people reflecting about generosity, empathy [and] our attitude towards strangers,” Smith said. “We are aware that we are living in a much safer world statistically than in the 1960s or ’70s, yet perception is the inverse. We want to do this work that goes to that place and makes people think about interacting with people they are meeting for the first time.”