TORONTO — He has dipped his boots in Lake Superior, crashed a wedding and attended an Aboriginal powwow. A talking, bucket-bodied robot has enthralled Canadians since it departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, last month on a hitchhiking journey to the Pacific Coast.
HitchBOT, created by a team of Ontario-based communications researchers studying the relationship between people and technology, will reach its final destination Sunday in Victoria, B.C., where it will receive a traditional Aboriginal canoe greeting at Victoria Harbor.
“What we wanted to do is situate robotics and artificial technologies into unlikely scenarios and push the limits of what it’s capable of,” said David Smith, the robot’s co-creator, who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The robot looks like it was made out of components scavenged from a yard sale — a bucket, pool noodles, a cake saver, garden gloves and yellow Wellington boots — but it has a sense of direction and can ask and answer questions. Its conversation skills might be stilted, but hitchBOT has managed to charm its way across 3,700 miles since it began its journey in Nova Scotia on July 26.
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Smith said hitchBOT has a built-in GPS system and is programmed with mobile technology similar to a smartphone, with speech-recognition software that works in conjunction with language modeling.
The robot links questions with answers by looking for certain key words and is programmed to scour Wikipedia to spit out regionally relevant facts.
The team also programmed hitchBOT to track its adventures online and take pictures to post on Twitter and Instagram.
It didn’t take long for hitchBOT to become a social-media sensation and many of the people who have offered him a ride already knew about him before encountering the bizarre contraption.
During the journey, hitchBOT was invited to a powwow with the Wikwemikong First Nation group, where the robot was dubbed Biiaabkookwe, according to its Twitter feed. It later hitched a ride with Belgian tourists.
Currently, Smith said hitchBOT is hanging out with the British Columbia rock band The Wild.
When it reaches Victoria this weekend, Steve Sxwithul’txw, an Aboriginal broadcast producer, plans to pick it up. He said he has arranged a canoe welcome, high tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel and a ferry ride to Seattle.
Smith said his team monitors hitchBOT via GPS and social media but drivers have been in control of where they take it and leave it. Smith said the team had replacement robots in case anything happened to hitchBOT, but the robot has not been mistreated.
The child-size robot can stand, making it visible to drivers via a retractable tripod. It has a car seat attached to its torso so drivers can strap it into their cars using seat belts.
The robot, which comes equipped with solar panels on its torso, communicates to people that it can be recharged by plugging it into car cigarette lighters or regular outlets.
Matthew Berry, of Alberta, said some friends picked up the robot while heading to a wedding in Golden, B.C.
“It was good fun; we took it out onto the dance floor to, well, do the real robot,” Berry said. “It was funny because it was a very meticulously planned wedding so I wasn’t sure how the bride would react, but she loved it!”
Berry said that while the couple was giving their speech, the bride thanked the couple’s friends for attending, and the robot interrupted, saying: “I like to make friends.”