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If a robotic hitchhiker’s guide to the United States were ever written, hitchBOT would probably have a thing or two to say about Philadelphia.
And yet it’s remarkable to think that the child-like construction of hitchBOT and its simple quest to travel the world came to embody a far more complex notion of “the separation between matter and the special status of humankind.”
That’s how Prof. David Harris Smith, one of hitchBOT’s co-creators, put it at a recent talk titled “The Death and Lives of hitchBOT, the Hitchhiking Robot.”
The talk comes a few months following the social robot’s untimely demise in Philadelphia in early August, where it was vandalized only two weeks into its American journey. Previously, hitchBOT had successfully traveled across Canada, Germany and the Netherlands since the start of its travels in the summer of 2014.
Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, and is well noted for his efforts in a field likened as “cultural robotics,” which he himself described as “the creative use of robots and AI to manifest a reflexive action, highlighting the construction of values, identities and beliefs.”
The hitchBOT project was perhaps a culmination of these efforts, a cultural and social experiment developed in tandem by teams led by Prof. Smith and Prof. Frauke Zeller at McMaster and Ryerson University, respectively. With bright neon limbs made up of material that could have come from the dollar store, underneath the hood hitchBOT was a sophisticated piece of hardware that included a GPS-locator for the team to track and an LED screen to convey emotion.
Most importantly though, hitchBOT ran on a number of programs that included a conversational AI called Cleverscript, giving it the capacity to interact with human beings and create conversation in real time while literally hitchhiking across the country.
Prof. Smith’s discussion went far beyond an account of hitchBOT’s journey across the world though, as he tried to capture the spirit of what made hitchBOT so popular.
“People wanted to do things with it that were somehow culturally identifying,” Smith commented.
Between the extensive social following hitchBOT had amassed and the outpouring of support it received following its demise — over half a million unique visitors were drawn to hitchBOT’s website in August alone — hitchBOT represented an idea beyond its destination. What hitchBOT could represent was important for Smith and his team in developing the robot, and played a role in why they chose to specifically pursue a child-like whimsical appearance.
“That was central; we definitely wanted to make it out of junk, stuff you would have around your house. It’s part of that desire to make it accessible, to make it approachable, an object that is actually able to manifest a humourous disposition.”
This was essential, as hitchBOT was entirely dependent on human sympathy and assistance to get to its destinations.
With the increase in fame, hitchBOT also ended up receiving numerous offers of advertisements for products such as tires and soft drinks, but to Smith and his team, this was against the greater vision they had for hitchBOT.
“Somebody was going to give us 40,000 euros just to put a sticker on it. We turned that down because we didn’t want to commercialize the thing; as soon as you brand it in that way, I think you lose your audience,” he said.
The social robot’s whimsical impression made it all the more tragic for people invested in the robot’s journey across the world. The idea that something so innocent and unimposing would find its end so violently and abruptly was something that captured the attention of media across the world, and support came in numerous forms from tweets, to hitchBOT cosplay and rallies.
However, despite the attention it received following its demise, Dr. Smith would still have preferred that hitchBOT simply could have continued its journey.
“Do I have any positive views of the fact that it was destroyed? No, not really. I would be more pleased if it was still out there, doing its thing,” he explained.
“For us we’d rather people had a chance to experience it and know the adventure would continue in some way.”
Dr. Smith is currently working on a number of projects that will continue to build on hitchBOT’s legacy, including an opportunity to potentially put a social robot on the International Space Station. There have been many offers for hitchBOT’s travels to continue, including in the United States, but it remains to be seen if hitchBOT will live again.