The Hitchbot – what robots say about us

I am sure many of you have heard of Hitchbot, the funny looking and a bit rudimentary robot that successfully crossed Canada from Halifax to Victoria, went to Germany, The Netherlands, only to find its demise in the US a few days after it had started a tour of America.

By then, Hitchbot had become a celebrity with people cheering her, waiting for her to visit their cities and of course, picking her up at some intersections or on the side of the road to give her a ride to the next city.

Hitchbot, not many people know, was an experiment initiated by Canadian David Smith (McMaster University), and  Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University), who mobilized a team of students from McMaster University to create a prototype and to give a voice and a “personality” to Hitchbot.

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The result was –apparently — a very chatty robot built in a trash can with a brain contained in a tablet. the robot had no mobility and needed the help of its human acquaintances to move around. it was decided to give her a female voice, in order to shatter some stereotypes about the gender of robots. despite this, people would tend to address Hitchbot as a he (with the exception of the Anishinabee people in Manitoulin Island, who decided that the robot was a woman and renamed her Iron Woman)

 

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David Smith jokes that one of the motivations that led him to start thinking about a hitch hiking robot was to make up for all the hitch hiking that as an adult and with a family, he could no longer do. But jokes apart, the making of Hitchbot was prompted by an observation: we talk a lot about if and how much we can trust robots and AI intelligence to do some job for us and to keep us safe, but what about the opposite? can robots trust us? are human beings able and responsible for keeping robots safe?

I know, the temptation is strong to just dismiss the question and answer: “well, the demise of the robot demonstrates that no, human beings are not trustworthy creatures”, but we should not jump to fast conclusions, like many did, and reflect on a few details regarding the Hitchbot trip.

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The trip was initially thought of as an experiment, a challenge to see if the robot could make it across the continent. however, it became much more: as the robot interacted with people, her popularity growing, it became clear that the experiment was becoming an opportunity to reflect on human nature and their social norms.  Starting in Halifax, Hitchbot’s goal was to reach Victoria, on the side, on the West coast. there was no plan regarding the trajectory to be taken. The only hope was that people would pick up the robot and take her with them. and so it happened. unexpectedly, the robot became very popular with people offering rides, taking her to camping trips and basically making her temporarily part of the family. having reached Victoria successfully, the robot was invited in Europe, in Germany, where she was host of the Canadian embassy in Berlin and in the Netherlands.

By the time Hitchbot reached NorthAmerica again and prepared for the trip in the USA, it was clear that things would have played a bit differently: in fact, the robot was so popular that people had become very interested (maybe too much) in giving her a ride. Apparently, people started following her moves and chasing after her. In this situation, celebrity culture kicks in and accidents are just waiting to happen. A robot homicide (later recognized as fake) was staged and posted on Youtube.

will there be another Hitchbot? it is possible that by the time (and if) another hitchbot will hit the road, different social dynamics will be coming into play. What was impressive though, is that the authors of Hitchbot were totally accepting and understanding of the situation: in fact, their goal was to sit down and observe, with no specific plan or goal, or schedule, embracing the randomness of this fabulous trip.