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Robot hitchhikes across country

The hitchhiking robot that embarked on a coast-to-coast social experiment is closing in on its destination.

Securing rides from generous strangers, it started in Halifax on July 27 and is about to end at a gallery space in Victoria after making its way through Vancouver.

Along the way the anthropomorphic ‘bot' – named hitchBOT – has made it to some interesting places.

“My wife was a bridesmaid at our friend’s wedding in Kicking Horse B.C. and the wedding was up on top of the mountain and guess who shows up in the gondola!” said Alex Popa who drove the robot after the wedding.

“Everybody at the wedding got really excited. A few people who didn’t know about hitchBOT, learned about hitchBOT. I think it was treated well for the most part, maybe towards the end of the night, it might have partied a little too hard but it was good.”

A bit of duct tape and some minor repairs and hitchBOT was on its way in Popa’s car. He was planning to take it all the way to Vancouver, but on a stop in Kelowna, a coffee shop employee whose nickname was also “Hitch” saw the bot and offered to give him a ride to Vancouver.

“We decided to actually leave it in Kelowna with him in good hands and make sure it gets to experience a little more of Canada before it makes it to the coast,” said Popa.

She – hitchBOT takes female pronouns – is a part art, part communication technology project of Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith. The communications professors at Ryerson and McMaster Universities, want to see if hitchBOT can survive the 6,000 kilometre trip without being trashed or stolen.

The creators say they are posing the question of whether robots, which are often portrayed in pop culture as untrustworthy killers destined to destroy mankind, should trust humans.

“Usually we are concerned whether we can trust robots. But this project takes it the other way around and asks: Can robots trust human beings?” Zeller, a communications professor at Ryerson University, said in a statement announcing the project in June.

hitchBOT is deliberately made of cheap parts, including pool noodles, a bucket and rubber boots – all items the creators figure strangers won’t steal when the robot starts to hitchhike.

And other than its one hitchhiking arm, hitchBOT isn’t mobile. “The robot is wholly dependent on people,” Zeller said.

With the help of google and Wikipedia, hitchBOT is also capable of having basic conversations.

“It’s really entertaining. You can’t really have real conversation with her, but close enough when you’ve been driving for four or five hours and you’re looking for entertainment,” said Popa.

Zeller and Harris Smith have been tracking hitchBOT using GPS and a wireless data connection. And she has been tweeting and taking pictures along the way, with a solar panel helping to generate power.

“In Vernon right by the lake, hitchBOT’s camera took an amazing shot of the lake,” said Popa while showing CTV news the photos he took with hitchBOT.

You can follow it on her journey on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and on her website: www.hitchbot.me

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