When I started traveling, I had some romantic ideas about hitchhiking instead of taking the bus. It wasn’t long before reality set in—namely, even in the safest places, a solo female traveler probably shouldn’t blindly trust anyone. So I’ve only hitchhiked once, in Guatemala, and that’s because the back of the truck already had a half-dozen kids and chickens in it (this somehow made it safer) and because I was trying to make it back to a bar where I could watch the Germany v. Spain World Cup final. That ride was glorious enough to make up for all the hitchhiking won’t do for the rest of my life, but now I can live vicariously through hitchBOT, the robot that will hitchhike across Canada at the end of July.
Canada is a good choice. As a hitchhiker, only Scandinavia strikes me as safer, but the Great White North doesn’t present the same linguistic difficulties (although most of the Swedes I’ve met speak better English than I do). Researchers at Toronto’s Ryerson University and Hamilton’s McMaster University are currently finishing their work on HitchBOT, which will start bumming rides on July 27, beginning at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and, if all goes well, ending in Victoria, British Columbia. HitchBOT has some developed communications skills, including speech recognition and processing abilities, as well as 3G connectivity that allows it so access information on Wikipedia API in order to be a better conversation partner. It also has GPS capabilities to make sure it continues heading west—more or less.
The robot’s body won’t be particularly high-tech. The only movable part is its hitchhiking arm, and it is a mishmash of different parts, some of which aren’t specifically intended for robots, like foam noodles, gardening gloves, and a bucket. HitchBOT’s Instagram account shows that its head is made from a cake saver, which serves as a protective helmet. HitchBOT will update its Instagram and Twitter accounts
during the epic journey.
In addition to relying on the kindness of strangers for a ride, HitchBOT will also need people to power it up by plugging it into the cigarette lighter. The project puts an interesting spin on the question of whether humans can trust robots by switching the question around: can a hitchhiking robot trust humans? Of course, we’re expecting a new Hitchhiker’s Guide when all of this is done, and perhaps a sequel featuring the robot hitchhiking with John Waters.