Hitchhiking robot visits Carlisle and humans learn a lesson
by Karina Coombs
HitchBOT takes a rest at the Old North Bridge. (Photo by Tracy McArdle Brady)
This past July, Tracy McArdle Brady and her family took part in a social experiment that was followed by fans, robot enthusiasts, news outlets and researchers around the world. For 24 hours they hosted hitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot from Port Credit, Ontario. As a follow up to its successful trip across Canada and parts of Europe, hitchBOT—unable to move without human assistance—was to travel from Massachusetts to San Francisco. The robot was destroyed in Pennsylvania after two weeks and 300 miles.
Can robots trust humans?
Created as both an art piece and social experiment by Dr. David Harris Smith of McMaster University and Dr. Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University, hitchBOT was designed to be an approachable robot that would offer a study into human and robotic interactions. While some have asked if humans can trust robots—particularly with the development of self-driving cars—the researchers posed a different question: Can robots trust humans?
“It really affected me when I read what happened,” said Brady, adding she was disappointed and embarrassed when news broke of the robot’s fate. “The goal of their experiment was to see if robots could trust humans… And apparently robots can trust humans in the Netherlands and Germany… Canada, of course, and he didn’t make it past Philadelphia. [We’re] so worried about technology and will robots take over…little did we know that robots can’t trust humans.”
HitchBOT tours Carlisle and Concord
HitchBOT began its journey on July 17 in Marblehead, its trip chronicled online through its website and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Brady first learned of the traveling robot from a co-worker who had acquired it in Gloucester after it returned from a fishing trip. When she told her sons about it and showed them the website, seven-year-old Henry and eight-year-old Ryder immediately asked if they could bring it to Carlisle.
Brady declined at first, but after learning that her co-worker needed to pass it along—hosts were not supposed to hold on to the robot for more than a day—she surprised her sons with it. “They immediately were interested and intrigued and asking him questions.” Friends of the brothers came to visit the robot, which ended up going for a ride in a backyard swing.
For its US journey, hitchBOT came with a bucket list of 26 American landmarks and experiences to check off. While Concord and Carlisle were not included, Brady thought it would be fun for her kids and the community if she drove it around to various sites. “I would be stopped in traffic and people would see him because his face lights up,” she said, explaining that the robot was affixed to a booster seat and secured by a seatbelt. Brady took hitchBOT to Minuteman National Park and the Old North Bridge, while also making stops at Ferns and the Concord Bookshop. “I was a little worried people would be alarmist [because of how it looks],” she said. “The first public place I took him was the bookstore and I thought, ‘Okay, this will be interesting.’”
HitchBOT was immediately recognized. “People were curious. They were interested…kids came and posed with him. [One] of the things that was so interesting about having it [is] it takes a robot to make you feel a little more human. These strangers were coming up to me... People were interested and curious [and] it made me feel good.”
HitchBOT goes for a ride in a backyard swing with (from left) Harry Balazy, Ryder Brady, Otto Balazy, Henry Brady and Daniel Maltsev. (Photo by Tracy McArdle Brady)
A plastic beer bucket and pool noodles
At three feet tall and weighing 25 pounds, hitchBOT had a decidedly non-threatening and low-tech appearance. The robot was made from everyday parts: a plastic beer bucket served as its torso, arms and legs were made from pool noodles outfitted with rubber gloves and Wellington boots and its head was made from a cake topper and garbage can lid.
Electronically, the robot was a bit more sophisticated. Powered by external solar panels and internal rechargeable batteries, hitchBOT could be charged with an electric outlet or a car cigarette lighter port. The system used an Android tablet running artificial intelligence software and a Wikipedia application that allowed it to have basic conversations, answer questions and search for and recite random facts. A microphone allowed it to capture audio and a camera took photos every 20 minutes that it could post to Twitter. Its location was tracked and posted to its website using GPS and a 3G cellular and Wi-Fi network. LED panels illuminated its “face,” with its only autonomous movement the ability to raise its hitchhiking thumb.
Reactions to hitchBOT
“Once he was charged properly he could communicate in a sort of very primitive Siri [the speech recognition software in Apple iPhones] kind of way,” said Brady, explaining that if you spoke carefully into its speaker it could answer questions about itself. Brady’s children discovered that the robot liked pizza and its favorite color was blue. “At first I was very self conscious because I thought people would be worried and think it was weird, but then the more people interacted I sort of got… it sounds strange, but it sort of restored my faith in humanity a little bit because people were kind and they were interested.”
After the family’s 24 hours were up, Brady’s sons said goodbye to the robot and she passed it along to another co-worker. That co-worker took hitchBOT to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game and ended up checking off the first of only two bucket list items completed during the short trip: starting the wave at a major sporting event. After a photo of the robot was uploaded to the company’s Twitter page, people responded and offered to drive hitchBOT to Rhode Island and New York and the robot moved on.
The following day, Brady realized that the GPS that allowed the robot’s fans to track it online—which she found was accurate within a block of its location—must have been on a delay to protect people’s privacy. “The day after I dropped him off in Boston people showed up at my neighbor’s house to take him mountain biking,” she laughed.
The robot and human connection
When hitchBOT’s destruction was announced, its social media accounts were flooded with messages of condolence. Roboticists made particular note of the apologies made directly to the robot as a sign of how people had anthropomorphized the machine. The ability of humans to feel empathy for robots is something researchers have been studying for years, particularly in the case of military robots. As the use of robots increases in battle, researchers have recognized unintended consequences as some soldiers develop strong attachments to the robots that protect them, giving them names and assigning gender, awarding them Purple Hearts when injured, holding military funerals for them and in some cases risking their lives to save them.
HitchBOT’s creators were so aware of the public’s attachment to the robot, they declined to post a photo of its battered body on the website—despite it being widely circulated—for fear of upsetting children who had been following its journey. In an August 5 press release, Smith wrote, “[We] knew there would always be the possibility that hitchBOT would be damaged or stolen. Even though it did end badly for hitchBOT, we’ve learned a lot about human empathy and trust—everything we’ve learned will be borne out in the resulting research and used in future planning for hitchBOT’s adventures.”
Will hitchBOT return?
While hitchBOT was destroyed on August 1, Brady only recently told her sons about what had happened because she wanted to make sure she could tell them it was going to be rebuilt. And it is. According to the hitchBOT website, its creators are in the process of determining if the robot will be rebuilt and sent back to Philadelphia in 2016 to continue its journey west, or if they will make hitchBOT available to schools, allowing students to create their own adventures as it is passed from school to school.
“[It] just goes to show you… you can say what you want about digital media and sharing and the ubiquitous nature of everybody always being online and knowing everything all the time, but sometimes it can work for good—you can rally people around something positive and that’s what this was,” said Brady. “And hopefully it will be again.”
To learn more about hitchBOT, visit: http://www.hitchbot.me ∆