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I, robot... looking for a lift

HitchBOT making friends across Canada

David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller with hitchBOT in Halifax before it set off on its adventure.

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David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller with hitchBOT in Halifax before it set off on its adventure.

A genderless robot making its way across Canada might be the most spoiled hitchhiker to ever raise a thumb.

Hitchbot gets ready to roll.

Enlarge Image

Hitchbot gets ready to roll. (TORONTO STAR)

Not only has hitchBOT been bumming free rides across the country, it's amassed new friends, accessories and even a pet along the way.

Last seen in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., hitchBOT began its journey July 27 in Halifax as both a social experiment and an ambitious art project, said its creators, David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller.

With a body crafted from a large bucket and limbs made of pool noodles, the robot's goal is to get to an art gallery in Victoria on its own, with no set path or supervision. HitchBOT cannot move, but it can raise its right thumb when it needs to hail a ride.

"We are really amazed at how well this has worked out and how people have embraced it and then helped to develop it into something very dynamic and interesting," said Zeller, an assistant professor working in the area of cultural robotics at Ryerson University. "What we like our robots to do is inspire discussions about human beings and technology... we want to see how people react to it."

So far, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Thanks to hitchBOT's burgeoning social media presence -- it's got more than 25,000 Twitter followers to date -- Canadians know about and want to connect with the travelling mini-celeb.

Jean-Pierre Brien from Halifax was one of hitchBOT's lucky hosts. As he and two friends were travelling to a wedding in Quebec, they saw hitchBOT was waiting for a ride in Kouchibouguac National Park north of Moncton, N.B. On a whim, they swung six hours out of their way to pick up the new friend.

"We tried to make it as comfortable as possible. We gave it the front seat next to the power charger and we took very good care of it," said Brien.

HitchBOT needs to be plugged into a vehicle's cigarette lighter or another power outlet every now and again to keep its energy up. The robot connects to the Internet and takes photos of its surroundings roughly every half hour, which it posts to social media with the driver's permission.

HitchBOT has speech-recognition technology, too, so it can carry on a conversation with the help of Wikipedia searches.

"It would have a conversation with us, but I would put 'conversation' in air quotes," said Brien, laughing. "It was more or less what hitchBOT felt like talking about. When it met new people, it would start talking about its owners and it would ask you for a ride."

"It uses something that we also use as human beings in our conversations, and that is if the conversation is slowed down or we don't really know what the other person is talking about, we'll just lob out a new topic," said Smith, an assistant professor in cultural robotics at McMaster University.

While hitchBOT's creators can hear what their invention is saying back home in Port Credit, Ont., they can't hear what others are saying to hitchBOT, which can make for a fun guessing game.

"We don't really know what they are talking about, but we do get lots of reports back from people and they say hitchBOT is hilarious.

Sometimes, you can have philosophical conversations with it and sometimes it just jumps to very funny phrases," Zeller said.

While hitchBOT was in his possession, Brien said it asked him if he believed in God and gave him lots of weather updates.

"At one time, it talked about wanting a puppy but it wasn't sure if its owners would let it have a puppy," Brien said.

He ended up giving hitchBOT a stuffed puppy before dropping it off in Campbellton, N.B. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, hitchBOT might just make it all the way to Victoria, which Zeller admits she wasn't sure would happen.

"We've become more and more optimistic now since we see how well people are treating hitchBOT. We're pretty sure he's going to make it," she said.

"Everybody is looking out for hitchBOT on social media, so when he stops somewhere for some time, people start inquiring on Twitter and Facebook, 'Hey, what's happening to hitchBOT? He's not moving that well.' Social media has become a safety belt for hitchBOT, in a way."

If all goes as unplanned, hitchBOT could be in Winnipeg as early as this weekend, so keep an eye out and a seat empty for the little robot that could.

jessica.botelho-urbanski@freepress.mb.ca

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