Canadian hitchhiking robot takes on the US

The ride-sharing HitchBot is also a covert attempt to assess American manners

Canadian hitchhiking robot HitchBot poses in this promotional image distributed by Ryerson University for the robot's journey from Massachusetts to California.

Canadian hitchhiking robot HitchBot poses in this promotional image distributed by Ryerson University for the robot's journey from Massachusetts to California.

You wouldn't hurt a cute little robot, eh?

A squeaky-voiced robot from Canada is throwing down the gauntlet in a politeness challenge to the US - can it hitchhike across the country and survive intact?

HitchBot will begin an epic journey across the US on Friday, thumbing rides from Massachusetts to California in what will be a test of both public manners and attitudes toward anthropomorphic machines. It will make its way from Salem to San Francisco, following successful treks across Canada and Germany and a sojourn in the Netherlands.

Like all hitchhikers, HitchBot relies upon the kindness of strangers. It's placed along a roadside, one rubber glove thumb in the air, and waits for a kindly motorist to pick it up, carry it into a vehicle and haul it down the road.

The kid-sized bot attracted significant media attention in Canada during its 6,000-kilometer journey from Halifax to Victoria last year. Left on a road by Halifax airport, it was picked up minutes later. After 19 lifts over three and a half weeks, it was on the Pacific coast in the capital of British Columbia.

HitchBot doesn't have much in terms of robotic features. It's fashioned from what seem to be odds and ends from a garage - a bucket, a child booster seat, pool noodles, a cake saver, yellow gardening gloves and yellow rubber boots.

Its head contains motors, a mirror and four LED screens that can light up in a smiley face. The electronics, as well as a camera, are run through an Android tablet, and the machine also has 3G wireless connectivity and GPS tracking so it can post its location and photos on the Internet.

Aside from solar panels on its chest, HitchBot can draw power by plugging into car cigarette lighters. It also bears written instructions on what to do when it's out of juice.

To boost its appeal, HitchBot can engage in simple conversations through Cleverscript, a software engine that can create virtual assistants based on spreadsheet data.

"I am a very talkative robot," HitchBot said in a promo video for its U.S. odyssey. "During my travels, I have been working on my human language skills."

The brainchild of communications scholars David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University, HitchBot is described as a social experiment or an art project that's meant to upend questions about whether humans can trust robots. HitchBot is all about whether robots can trust humans, especially random people encountered on the road.

It wants to visit landmarks in the US such as Times Square and Mount Rushmore before arriving at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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Tim Hornyak

IDG News Service
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