BreakThru News, ep. 34: HitchBOT


By Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein

The idea of a future filled with robots can instantly trigger dystopian images of humanity at the mercy of malignant machines. Such anxieties will only have been stirred further by recent advances in artificial intelligence: for the first time ever, a robot passed the ‘Turing Test’, convincing humans through online conversation that it was a 13-year-old boy. While many view progress in robotics optimistically for the empowerment of mankind, worst case scenarios such as the near apocalypse of I-Robot stick fast in the minds of many, fostering a deep mistrust of this uncanny technology. So it is startling to be presented with a new experiment that asks the reverse question: can robots trust humans?

This is what researchers set out to discover with the creation of HitchBOT, the world’s first hitch-hiking robot. The friendly robot road-tripped across Canada over the course of three weeks, dependant on the goodwill of strangers to maintain it and follow instructions for each pick-up and drop-off. In return, it entertained its drivers with simple conversation and countless kooky photo ops. The project proved a resounding success: not only did HitchBOT complete the journey intact, but arrived in Victoria festooned with various souvenirs, ornaments, and even new nail polish. The result revealed as much about human culture as it did about robot technology.

This week, BreakThru News spoke with HitchBOT’s creators, Professors David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller about the robot’s remarkable journey and challenges along the way. (Thankfully the “Missing HitchBOT” campaign posters were never put into action.) Canadians are now happily attributing the success of the road trip to the country’s native kindness, which has sparked some international competition to welcome the robot and demonstrate the hospitality of other nations. According to Zeller, HitchBOT’s future will certainly involve learning some new languages.

Video Credits
Host, Writer – Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein
Video Editor – Andy Morell
Script Supervisor – Matthew DeMello
Research – Brian Fencil

with guests – David Harris Smith, Frauke Zeller