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Robot to hitchhike Sunday from Halifax to Victoria in study of trust

HALIFAX - Travellers in Canada may have some unusual company on the highway this summer as a Wellie-wearing, social media-savvy robot hits the road on a mission to hitchhike its way from Halifax to Victoria.

Hitchbot sets off Sunday on its own to collect stories, meet fellow adventurers and chronicle its more than 6,000-kilometre journey.

The talking robot is an interdisciplinary research project conceived by a team of Ontario-based communications researchers studying the evolving relationship between people and technology.

"We want to take the question that we usually ask — which is, 'Can we trust robots?' — flip it around and ask, 'Really, can robots trust human beings?'" said Hitchbot's co-creator Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"Our society depends more and more on robots and we need to know more about our relationship to that kind of technology."

Immobile on its own, Hitchbot is entirely dependent on human beings for its survival, a state Zeller said is intentional.

"That's part of the experiment," she said, adding that once Hitchbot departs, its creators will not help with its journey.

"It has to be wholly independent, on its own, to really see, 'Can robots trust human beings?'"

Besides contributing to social science robotics research, Hitchbot will bring an eccentric style to Canada's highways. Built out of parts usually found in a basement or hardware store, Zeller described the robot's look as a yard-sale aesthetic.

"On the one hand it has to be sturdy enough to withstand general weather conditions. On the other hand it has to be appealing to people and it has to be trustworthy," Zeller said. "They should feel like, 'Yeah, I should help that robot.'"

Hitchbot's LED-lit smiley face is protected by a transparent cake saver, set on top of a plastic beer pail wrapped in a solar panel. Its pool noodle appendages are capped with rubber boots and yellow latex gloves, one with its thumb pointed firmly upright in anticipation of its next ride.

Hitchbot can also recharge using a standard AC plug or with a car charger designed to fit in a vehicle's onboard cigarette lighter.

Despite its simple design, Hitchbot is able to plug into a much broader technological world. Voice-recognition robotics can prompt it to reference Wikipedia and it is programmed to document its trip through social media using onboard GPS. Hitchbot's Twitter feed has already passed the 6,000-follower mark.

Hitchbot was first imagined last year, the brainchild of Zeller and co-creator David Smith, a professor in the department of communication studies at McMaster University in Hamilton.

They describe Hitchbot in multiple ways: a collaborative art project, a technological performance piece and a social robotics experiment.

"We actually design robots that are explorers and go places that are too dangerous for human beings, like the Mars rover," said Zeller. "Nowadays we consider hitchhiking to be too dangerous."

Smith spoke of a negative shift in society's attitudes towards hitchhiking, despite falling crime rates.

"There's a kind of perception that strangers present a possible risk," said Smith, who has thumbed across Canada more than once. "The situation of Hitchbot is that we're sending a robot off to do something ostensibly dangerous.

"Hitchbot really sits right in the middle of those interesting discussions about what are our future relationships with robots and what kind of cultural mood are we engaged in currently in terms of our sense of adventure and our wariness or not of strangers."

So far, public response has been overwhelmingly positive, Smith said, with plenty of curious passersby eagerly snapping selfies with the chatty, winking robot.

"It's a whimsical project," he said. "It's adventure by proxy, is how I would describe it."

Follow @gwomand on Twitter.

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