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Talking robot goes hitchiking across Canada

A talking, bucket-bodied robot has enthralled Canadians since it departed from Halifax last month on a hitchhiking journey to the Pacific coast

TORONTO: He has dipped his boots in Lake Superior, crashed a wedding and attended an Aboriginal powwow.

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hitchBOT with its research team in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada

hitchBOT, created by a team of Ontario-based communication researchers studying the relationship between people and technology, will reach its final destination on Sunday in Victoria, British Columbia.

hitchBOT
hitchBOT with its research team in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada

“We wanted to 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 Ontario’s McMaster University.

The robot looks like it was made out of components scavenged from a yard sale — a bucket, pool noodles, cake saver, garden gloves and yellow Wellington boots — but it has a sense of direction and can even ask and answer questions. Its conversation skills might be a bit stilted, but hitchBOT has managed to charm its way across 6,000 km since it began its journey in Nova Scotia on July 26.

His insides
It 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 modelling. The robot links questions with answers by looking for certain key words and is programmed to scour Wikipedia to spit out regionally relevant facts.

It didn’t take long for hitchBOT to become a social media sensation and many people who have offered it a ride already knew all
about him.

Along the way, hitchBOT was invited to a powwow with the Wikwemikong First Nation group, where he was dubbed Biiaabkookwe.

Currently, hitchBOT is hanging out with the British Columbia rock band The Wild, which is taking it to its next performance.

When it reaches Victoria, Steve Sxwithul’txw, an aboriginal broadcast producer, plans to pick it up. He said he has arranged a canoe welcome, high tea at the Empress Hotel and ferry ride to Seattle.

According to Smith, 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 to continue the journey in case anything happened to hitchBOT, but so far, the robot has not been mistreated.

Meet hitchBOT
The child-sized robot is able to 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 seatbelts.

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.

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