In what is hailed as a world first for robots, a Canadian robot dubbed "hitchBOT" hopes to be the first to hitchhike across Canada this July. Wearing jaunty red boots and yellow garden gloves (with one in a permanent "thumbing a ride" gesture), hitchBOT is going to try to use his good looks and power of speech to convince people to pick him up and drive him from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia.
According to his designers, hitchBOT boasts artificial intelligence (AI) and and has been endowed with speech recognition and speech processing capabilities so that he may understand and converse with those people that he may encounter on his journey. To keep them engaged in conversation, hitchBOT apparently also runs social media and Wikipedia APIs, so that he will not only be able to talk to the people that pick him up, he’ll be able to make interesting and informed small talk with them whilst tweeting and posting his "thoughts" to a wider audience.
A collaborative venture first conceived in 2013, hitchBOT is a product of the work of Dr. David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Dr. Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University. Since its inception, the team has further expanded to include other collaborators and researchers from a wide range of disciplines from both universities, including computer science, electrical engineering, communication, and mechatronics.
As a result, hitchBOT is a science project, a social experiment, and an art installation. Not only will it see the use of speech recognition, speech processing, and various forms of electronic interchange in a real-world environment, but the hitchBOT project will also gauge how human beings interact with a robot that is out in the world with them.
"We believe that through this artwork, we can learn a lot in terms of social robotics and how we approach robots in non-restricted, non-observed environments," say Smith and Zeller.
As a sibling to "kulturBOT" – a robotic art show commentator that attends exhibitions and projects captioned photographs of the galleries, attendees, and art – hitchBOT continues the theme of studying human-robot interaction. with Smith and Zeller’s research focusing on the philosophies surrounding such interactions and even the phobias people may harbor about robots.
So, if you happen to be driving down the TransCanada highway this Canadian summer and you spot what looks to be a R2-D2's poor cousin thumbing a ride, consider picking him up, plugging him into your cigarette lighter if he asks, and listening to what he has to say; you both may benefit from the interaction.