Tuesday, January 20, 2015

HitchBOT takes robot road trip to Germany

Hitchbot and co-creators Frauke Zeller and David Smith. Chad Hipolito/CP
Torstar News Service
HitchBOT is headed for the Autobahn. The Canadian-made hitchhiking robot that talked and tweeted its way from Halifax to Victoria last summer — that talked and tweeted its way in the Rockies and being bestowed with an honorary name at a powwow on Manitoulin Island — is gearing up for its next quest: thumbing its way around Germany.

The robot’s designers are hoping it will receive a comparably warm welcome on its first foreign foray, after it won the adoration of hundreds on its maiden trek across Canada.

“I think being helpful to something that needs help is something that is innate to everybody,” said Frauke Zeller, the Ryerson University professor and hitchBOT co-creator, who is also from Germany.

She said the hitchBOT team, a collaboration of students and researchers from Ryerson and Hamilton’s McMaster University, is working “around the clock” to update the robot’s language software — essentially teaching it to speak German before it makes for the Continent and starts its new journey next month.

The robot’s hitchhike across Canada began in late July and ended three weeks later. It was a widely followed trek that saw the robot hitch rides with random road-trippers. The robot wears gum boots and rubber gloves, has an LED panel of lights for a face and a plastic bucket torso.

HitchBOT is programmed to explain itself to the people who pick it up, and ask to be plugged in to keep its battery charged. The ‘bot also offers regionally specific tidbits of information that it picks up with its built-in Wi-Fi and can also take part in idle conversation.

Along the way, the robot takes pictures and periodically provides updates on Twitter and posts its location to Instagram. An on-board GPS allows people to follow its progress online.

The upcoming German expedition, though, is set up in partnership with a local TV show, Galileo, a prime-time science program with more than 2 million “likes” on Facebook. The show’s producers are hoping to set up “challenges” for the German public, such as “who can take hitchBOT to the top of the highest mountain in Germany,” Zeller said.

Unlike in Canada, the goal isn’t to reach a specific destination; Zeller said she hopes hitchBOT criss-crosses the whole country. She added that, even though the TV show is involved, the hitchhiking journey still won’t be scripted or carefully planned out; the element of randomness will remain central to the hitchBOT idea.

“They want to try to follow it, but it’s not like it’s going to be riding in the TV car,” Zeller said.

Zeller emphasized that its creators want to ensure hitchBOT’s Canadian fan base remains engaged with the German hitchhike.

“We will translate German comments for the English community and vice versa,” she said.

“HitchBOT is Canadian and has a big Canadian community. We want to make sure they are integrated in this German adventure.”

The robot tweeted Monday afternoon: “I’m so excited; my family” — its creators — “says I have ants in my pants.”

HitchBOT will hit the German roads Feb. 13, with its stay in the country expected to last 10 days.

hitchBOT by the numbers

The robot’s favourite song, according to its developers, is “Mr. Roboto” by Styx.

It hitchhiked 10,868.92 km (approximately) on the road during its cross-Canada journey last year. The odyssey took 26 days and consisted of 19 rides between Halifax and Victoria.

The robot was tagged in 353 Instagram photos during the trip, while it has posted more than 400 tweets since it went online May 29.

The robot’s Canadian journey was followed by thousands of people around the world. People visited the hitchBOT website from Canada, the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Japan and more.

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