Canada's hitchhiking robot puts human trust to the test

Talking robot roams across Canada to test humans' trust in technology

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 6:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 6:53am


A talking robot assembled from household odds and ends is hitchhiking thousands of kilometres across Canada this summer as part of a social experiment to see if those of its kind can trust humans.

"Society is usually concerned with whether we can trust robots," said Frauke Zeller, co-creator of the hitchBOT.

Hollywood movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix often depict machines as enemies of mankind, according to the assistant professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.

But, she noted, the opposite is true of hitchBOT. "This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, 'Can robots trust humans?'" Zeller said. "Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots, and notions of safety and trust."

Zeller and fellow professor David Smith, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, along with a team of specialists, designed hitchBOT to be fully dependent on people.

And hitchBOT certainly has what it takes to charm its way into people's hearts.

It can strike up a conversation and can answer trivia questions by consulting information using its built-in computers. And it will even tell you when it is tired and in need of recharging from your car's cigarette lighter.

HitchBOT was built for about US$1,000 from parts found in a typical Canadian home or hardware store. It has an LED-lit smiley face wrapped in a transparent cake saver set atop a plastic beer pail wrapped in a solar panel, with swimming pool noodles for limbs.

Its feet are rubber boots and it wears yellow latex gloves - including one with its thumb extended to show it wants to catch a ride.

The automaton's design could not be too heavy because it had to be manually lifted into a car. The robot also had to be small enough to fit into the back seat of a car but still have enough heft so it would not be blown over by a gust of wind while hitchhiking on the side of the road.

And it had to be resistant to chilly temperatures common during Canadian late-summer nights.

The robot began its trip on July 27 in Canada's Atlantic port city of Halifax, after being picked up by an elderly couple in a camper van. They handed it off after a night in the Canadian outback to three young men from Quebec province.

HitchBOT then zipped through eastern Canada to Toronto for a brief check-in with its creators before hitting the road again. It is ultimately headed for the country's westernmost city of Victoria - more than 6,000km from its starting point.

The trip is being documented on social media via the website, allowing people around the world to connect with the robot.

Less than 24 hours after it began its journey, it had already snapped up 12,000 followers on Twitter, including one fan who posted a photo of a cardboard box look-alike.

By Friday, the number of Twitter followers was nearly 20,000.

Once the robot's travels are over, researchers will analyse comments posted on Twitter and Facebook to see what they can surmise about the public's attitudes concerning robot-human interactions.