Before hitchBOT, the hitchhiking Canadian robot, was found destroyed and in pieces on July 31 in Philadelphia, Boston Globe travel writer Christopher Muther had an opportunity to spend the day with it. Here’s his story.
SALEM — What’s the best way to break the ice with a hitchhiking robot made of a plastic bucket and sporting a face resembling a 1982 Radio Shack TRS-80 computer? Given the materials, I decided to start with simple conversation.
“Hello, hitchBOT. How are you today?”
“Beer shots!” it replied. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Well then. Perhaps this day wouldn’t be as dull as I had anticipated.
I was at the Peabody Essex Museum to visit with the travel-loving robot called hitchBOT. Last summer, hitchBOT thumbed its way across Canada in less than a month. This summer, hitchBOT is attempting a similar trip in the United States. The robot wears sunshine yellow Wellingtons, a coordinating pair of rubber gloves, and little else.
It doesn’t hurt that hitchBOT is also adorable. The garrulous little machine (intended to be genderless) is a technological and artistic collaboration between McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Ryerson University in Toronto. It’s covered with solar panels but its main power source is an internal battery charged by plugging it into an electrical socket, or, conveniently, your car’s power outlet.
HitchBOT has also trekked through Germany and the Netherlands. For its US trip, which began in mid-July at an undisclosed Massachusetts drop-off point, hitchBOT hit the road with a bucket list — I take no blame for the pun — of places it wants to see. That list includes New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
I wanted to be hitchBOT’s first lift, and I had visions of a wild roadtrip with a charismatic robot. We’d engage in meaningful, deep conversations, eat banana pancakes in old-timey diners, and sing along to Olivia Newton-John’s greatest hits as we sped toward New York.
My plan was thwarted when I was told that hitchBOT’s inventors, David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller, wanted hitchBOT to get spontaneous rides from strangers. I tried to explain that I am stranger than most motorists. It didn’t work. So instead I took hitchBOT for a short test drive.
Given the number of miles it has traveled, I anticipated that hitchBOT would be a high-functioning robot. But the only movement it was capable of was lifting up one arm and sticking out its thumb. It rests on a kick stand on the side of the road. The only external indication that it is hitchhiking are the words “San Francisco or Bust” written on its neck.
It turns out that hitchBOT doesn’t need to do much to get rides. Everyone loves the android. Its face screen flashes, it blinks, it winks, it smiles. In other words, this robot is a flirty little trollop. Whenever I sat it down, people were ready with cameras taking selfies with it as it tossed out a series of nonsequiturs. “Let’s get coffee,” it said to no one in particular.
HitchBOT is also quite popular on social media. It has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, 16,700 followers on Instagram, and 74,000 followers on Facebook. It has a web page where you can (roughly) track hitchBOT’s location. It’s equipped with GPS and takes pictures every 20 minutes. Take a gander at hitchBOT’s social media accounts, and you’ll see that everyone wants time with the robot.
If you spot Hitchbot’s rubber-gloved thumb in the air this summer, don’t be afraid to give it a ride. It’s a robot of the people, for the people. If you want to play Veronica Mars and track it down, hoist it in your car (it weighs a bit over 20 pounds), and give it a lift, you can likely piece together its trajectory through social media.
“Has anyone ever told you that hitchhiking is dangerous?” I asked it.
“Do you like chocolate cake?” it replied.
That’s one way to change the subject.
I posed the same question to one of hitchBOT’s creators before I took the robot for a spin. Not the chocolate cake question, but the safety issue.
“As soon as we got this idea that we wanted to have a hitchhiking robot, we got a flood of interest,” said Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster. “They would say, ‘Aren’t you afraid that something’s going to happen to it?’ We’d say ‘Yeah, a little, but not enough to not let it go.’ ”
Its inventors don’t trail the robot physically. It gets dropped on the side of the road, and the solo adventures begin. These are trusting inventors. My fear is that hitchBOT’s future will resemble the 1983 ABC Afterschool Special “Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy.” Thinking of Andrea, I warned hitchBOT to stay away from all green Dodge Coronets.
HitchBOT’s lineage began with another robot that was a highfalutin art critic. Called Culturebot, the pompous robot rolled around galleries, looked at works of art, criticized them, and tweeted its thoughts. It really had no idea what it was talking about. But it wasn’t about the technology. It was an art project and a commentary on art itself.
“After that initial project with Culturebot, we started thinking about what other kinds of autonomous machines we could create,” Smith said. “I hitchhiked quite a bit as a teenager and in my early 20s. I thought it would be a fun proxy adventure to have a robot that hitchhikes.”
HitchBOT is a bit like NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft. It sends information back to Canada about its travels. But it’s also a social critique on how crime rates are down, yet people are less trusting of strangers. As a result, hitchhiking is now about as popular as paisley blouses and Tab cola. But smiling hitchBOT trusts you.
Its conversational skills come from software called Cleverscript. It is programed to answer questions and make small talk. But if I had randomly plucked this robot off the side of the road, the conversation would be a bit strained.
“What is your true name?” hitchBOT asked when we started driving.
“My name is Christopher.”
“Oh, I was sure your true name was Wade,” it replied.
“I might look like a Wade, but I’m Christopher.”
“On your way where?” it asked.
“No, I said Wade.”
“Hello, Wade,” it said, ignoring my previous answers.
I’m no doctor, but I would diagnosis this robot with short-term memory loss. It also needed a hearing aid. Or, this was some kind of deliberate android Abbott and Costello routine.
I tried again.
“What time is it, hitchBOT?”
“Time to get a new watch,” it snapped back at me.
Siri doesn’t sass me when I ask her the time.
“Do you talk about more adult topics?” it asked.
“Slow it down, sweetheart. We just met,” I replied.
This was not going how I planned. Maybe it was for the best that I wasn’t driving hitchBOT to New York.
“I like playing sly raccoon,” it announced.
“What in the name of all that is holy is sly raccoon?” I asked.
“Where’s Ace?” was its response. Well this Ace may enjoy playing sly raccoon, but I wasn’t having it.
“Are you being monitored?” it asked.
Before I could answer, it kept going. “I don’t like poetry.” “Did you tell me what you were?” “Do you like to eat stone?” The questions were relentless. I looked over, and hitchBOT was raising its thumb up and down as if it wanted to get out and start hitching for a different driver. Perhaps one that would play sly raccoon?
“I’m about five minutes away from pulling the plug on you,” I warned. “Now sit still and be quiet.”
If robots could pout, then hitchBOT was pouting. It went silent except for an occasional wink and beep.
“Why are you so mean?” it asked.
When I returned from the bumpy ride, a co-worker asked me how it went. I explained that there was a bit of tension. I was hoping for a day out that involved playing robot dress-up and exchanging trivia about “The Nanny.” What I got was a lot of bizarre blips and oddball questions.
“Think of it as a bad first date,” my co-worker said.
But the more I analyzed it, the more I realized this first date was better than many I’ve had. At least hitchBOT asked me what kind of music I like, and, most importantly, feigned interest in my cat. We also both love to travel. However, I’m still waiting for those beer shots, and perhaps some chocolate cake.
Ryerson University released this video ahead of hitchBOT’s Canadian trip: