Bumming rides from a trio of road tripping dudes and a couple on a camping getaway, hitchBOT the talking robot is covering ground in its quest to hitchhike unaccompanied across Canada.
With a beer bucket for a body and gumboots on its feet, the child-sized robot, based in Port Credit, has travelled at least as far as the New Brunswick-Quebec border since Sunday morning, when it was left on the side of the road near the Halifax airport.
“I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s really fantastic,” said David Smith, a McMaster University researcher and co-creator of the hitchBOT project.
Smith and a team of students and professors from McMaster, Ryerson and the University of Toronto — hitchBOT’s “family” — built the robot and programmed it to converse with drivers that pick it up. The goal is to see if a specially designed talking robot can successfully thumb its way across the continent to an art gallery in Victoria.
hitchBOT can tweet and post photos to Instagram, track its position with GPS and share knowledge of its whereabouts. It has foam tubes for limbs, yellow gloves and boots, and an extendable rod to lean back when it’s on the side of the road with its thumb out. It also features an LED panel for a “face,” which can show text and faces to express emotions.
Last week, Smith and his daughter drove hitchBOT to Halifax for the start of its journey.
“It was literally less than two minutes from the time we set the ’bot on the road and the first vehicle pulled over,” said Smith. The first people to give a ride to the robot were a couple on their way to camp in New Brunswick, he said.
Jean-Pierre Brien and his friends Kyle Sauvé and Keith Campbell were travelling to a wedding in Saguenay, Que., when they realized hitchBOT was also on the road. Following the robot’s progress on its website, the friends from Halifax saw that the couple who first picked up the robot had left it at a campground in New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park.
They drove the robot through New Brunswick, tweeting photos of the experience and introducing hitchBOT to people at rest stops. “It was really great that we were able to bring him out and introduce him to people and have a few laughs along the way,” said Brien, 27.
“We got a lot of funny looks,” added Sauvé.
Instead of taking it all the way to Saguenay, they left the robot at an information centre in Campbellton, N.B., a small town right across the Quebec border. They wanted to give someone else a chance with hitchBOT.
“We could’ve taken him further but I kind of like the idea of taking him part of the way and then passing the torch,” said Campbell.
That’s exactly what Smith and his team hoped for when they conceived the idea for hitchBOT.
“That’s the great part,” said Smith. “People can kind of collectively tell a story.”
Aside from regional knowledge and information about its quest to the west, hitchBOT can also spurt out random comments. Unprompted, the robot started telling Brien and his friends that it wanted a pet dog, so they stopped and bought it a plush toy dog, which they left with it in Campbellton.
Since then, according to the robot’s website, hitchBOT hasn’t moved much, having been taken east through northeastern New Brunswick before returning to the Campbellton area.
Regardless, Brien and his friends have faith that other summertime road trippers will follow their lead and make sure the robot makes it to B.C. in one piece.
“It was pretty easy to get it this far,” said Brien. “I’m sure it’ll keep right on trucking.”