He has dipped his boots in Lake Superior, crashed a wedding and attended an Aboriginal pow-wow. A talking, bucket-bodied robot has enthralled Canadians as, beginning from Halifax last month, it went on a hitchhiking journey to the Pacific coast.
HitchBOT, created by team of Ontario-based communication researchers studying the relationship between people and technology, reached its final destination on Saturday in Victoria, British Columbia. “What we wanted to do is situate robotics and artificial technologies into unlikely scenarios and push the limits of what it’s capable of,” said David Smith, the robot’s co-creator, who teaches at Ontario’s McMaster University.
HitchBOT looks like it was made out of components scavenged from a yard sale — a bucket, pool noodles, cake saver, garden gloves and yellow Wellington boots — but it has a sense of direction and could ask and answer questions. His conversation skills might have been a bit stilted, but these were good enough for HitchBOT to charm its way across 6,000 km.
Smith said HitchBOT has a built-in GPS system and is programmed with mobile technology similar to a smartphone, with speech recognition software that works in conjunction with language modelling. The robot links questions with answers by looking for certain key words and is programmed to scour Wikipedia to spit out regionally relevant facts.
The child-sized robot is able to stand, making it visible to drivers via a retractable tripod. It has a car seat attached to its torso so drivers can strap it into their cars using seatbelts. The robot, which comes equipped with solar panels on its torso, communicates to people that it can be recharged by plugging it into car cigarette lighters or regular outlets.
The HitchBOT team also programmed it to track its adventures online and take pictures to post on Twitter and Instagram.
It didn’t take long for HitchBOT to become a social media sensation and, truth be told, many of the people who have offered him a ride already knew about him. Smith said its Instagram following crossed 11,000 people, its Facebook account had garnered more than 41,000 “likes” and it had above 32,000 Twitter followers.
Along the way, HitchBOT was invited to a pow-wow with the Wikwemikong First Nation group, where the robot was dubbed Biiaabkookwe, according to its Twitter feed.
HitchBOT also hung out with the British Columbia rock band The Wild, which is taking it to its next performance.
Smith said his team monitored HitchBOT via GPS and social media but drivers had been in control of where they took and leave it. The team also had replacement robots to continue the journey in case anything happened to HitchBOT.
Matthew Berry, of Alberta, said some friends picked up the robot while heading to a wedding in Golden, BC. “It was good fun; we took it out onto the dance floor,” Berry said. While the couple were giving their speech, the bride thanked their friends for attending. The robot interrupted, Berry laughed, saying, “I like to make friends.”
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