This robot is about to hitchhike across the United States
Unlike most technology, hitchBOT, a lo-fi, kid-sized robot with gardening gloves for hands and rubber boots for feet, is not designed to make humans' lives easier. In fact, hitchBOT can't serve its purpose with humans' help.
The bot, designed by Canadians Frauke Zeller, a professor at Ryerson University, and David Harris Smith, a professor at McMaster University, has a few simple functions. It's main purpose is to hitchhike. The bot has a kickstand that allows it to sit upright on the side of the road to solicit rides with its thumb outstretched. While traveling, it can also participate in simple conversations and crack jokes with fellow passengers. hitchBOT has already thumbed its way across Canada and Europe, but it's about to begin its first journey through the United States, beginning in Salem, Massachusetts.
Zeller and Smith see the robot as a social experiment and art project they can use to study the effects of a needy robot on humans. “We want to see what people do with this kind of technology when we leave it up to them,” said Zeller. “It’s an art project in the wild — it invites people to participate.”
The robot includes a GPS tracker and takes photos every 20 minutes or so while traveling. But its creators were careful to limit its data collection abilities. “We want to be very careful to avoid surveillance technologies with this; that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” said Smith. The creators are careful to ask people in photos taken by the robot if they're ok with the images being posted on social media, where hitchBOT is popular -- it currently has over 33,000 Twitter followers. Researchers are analyzing this social data to learn about how people interact with a helpless robot.
Smith and Zeller have no way to predict where the bot will go, or what will happen to it, and they're ok with that. “We want to create something that has a bit of narrative to it, a sense of adventure,” says Smith. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen.”