Robo-mission impossible? Talking robot on trans-US hitchhike stuck in Boston for 7 days!

© Ryerson University
A talking robot, attempting to hitchhike across the US, is making slow progress. People are giving it a ride anywhere except where it actually asks them to go. The Canadian cyborg, called hitchBOT, has been stuck in Boston for a week.

With its thumb raised, hitchBOT, designed as a study of human behavior, is requesting Americans to take it on a journey of a lifetime, from Boston Massachusetts to San Francisco, California.

So far the creation of two Canadian researchers hasn’t managed to leave the state, after the first week of its trans-America hitchhiking mission. Last Friday, the robot started its journey from the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. 

READ MORE: Hitching a ride: Talking robot aims to travel from coast to coast across US

New Englanders have apparently bounced the robot around the Boston area, using it for picturesque photo ops by the sea.

Dr David Harris Smith (McMaster University) and Dr Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University) first conceived hitchBOT in 2013 as a collaborative art project to see if people trust robots.

“Often we ask whether we can trust robots and it is a kind of vision of a dark future in which robots could be our overlords,” David Smith told RT.

“In this case we kind of reverse the question: if human beings are making robots to accomplish goals, would it be possible that these autonomous machines can trust humans?”

The robot, about the size of a child, is immobile and gets from place to place by being transported by strangers. Travelers can leave it at a gas station or shop, or just pass it on to their friends. It has a bucket for a body, foam noodles for arms and legs and wears yellow rubber gloves and patterned rubber boots.

“Please pick me up and put me in your vehicle,” hitchBOT says when he’s sitting on the side of the road. “I want to experience the American dream. Along with my newly shined wellies, I will be bringing a bucket list I made with the help of my family.”

Although the robot is made of junk you can find in your average basement, hitchBOT is equipped with a high-capacity battery and GPS so the researchers in Canada can track its journey.  The robot also has the ability to carry on a limited conversation and give people random facts from Wikipedia. Also, it can snap its own photos, making itself active in social media. It took hundreds of hours of programming to enable hitchBOT to “live” independently among humans.

“It’s a little bit like launching a Mars mission,” Smith says. “We’re sending something away from the people who can actually fix it.”

HitchBOT became an internet sensation after catching 19 rides in just 26 days, covering some 10,000 kilometers in Canada. The robot also took a European vacation visiting Munich, Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg in Germany, and some sites in the Netherlands.

“People love robots too much. HitchBOT is having a pretty good time,” said Smith commenting on the fact that seven days after the beginning of the journey, hitchBOT is still in exactly the same location where it started, i.e. Boston.

"We want to see what people do with this kind of technology when we leave it up to them," said Frauke Zeller, one of the creators and an assistant professor in professional communication at Toronto's Ryerson University. "It's an art project in the wild — it invites people to participate."

More than 30,000 people follow the robot on Twitter with hundreds posting their selfies with the endearing hitchBOT.