VICTORIA – Once he gets past the plastic-bucket body, the pool-noodle arms and the complete lack of a soul, Seb Leeson sees a lot of himself in HitchBOT, the ragtag robot that spent several weeks hitchhiking across Canada.
Leeson, a 32-year-old Belgian tourist, and his wife set off on a cross-Canada road trip from Halifax to Victoria, the same basic itinerary HitchBOT followed when it began its journey last month.
And while HitchBOT is technically made in Canada — the art project of two Ontario professors — Leeson says the robot still looks and acts very much like an outsider.
“He’s not a regular Canadian travelling overland, and we’re definitely not Canadians travelling overland,” says Leeson, one of the many people who gave HitchBOT a lift.
“We had this weird connection.”
HitchBOT left Halifax in late July, thumbing rides across more than 6,000 kilometres until it arrived in Victoria earlier this week. GPS technology tracked its progress on the robot’s website and Twitter account, which built up roughly 35,000 followers.
Leeson and his wife, who had already seen a news report about HitchBOT, came across the robot on a beach north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Before long, they were loading the robot into their European camper van, with HitchBOT buckled into the passenger seat and Leeson’s wife, Kim, in the back.
HitchBOT, which is about the size and weight of a small child and has a face displayed on a digital screen, is loaded with speech recognition software. That allowed it to tell people where it wanted to go, while also asking and responding to simple questions.
“You know it’s not a human, but you humanize it, and you’re trying to have a conversation and some kind of weird relationship,” says Leeson.
HitchBOT’s creators say it received at least 18 different rides as complete strangers took on the responsibility of transporting the robot closer to its destination.
The robot’s many adventures included watching a First Nations powwow, crashing a wedding, having high tea in Victoria, and posing for countless photos at gas stations, in cafes and along highways across the country.
HitchBOT co-creator Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University, says she wanted to explore how humans would respond when the typical role of technology is reversed.
“Usually, we have robots to help us,” says Zeller.
“In this case, this robot is absolutely dependent on people’s help, so are we willing to do that? I think we had some very amazing results.”
The creators didn’t co-ordinate rides beforehand, instead relying on drivers encountering HitchBOT at random to pick it up. In some instances, those drivers arranged the robot’s next ride, while others simply left it on the side of the highway to flag down a ride with its motorized arm.
When the robot arrived in Victoria, its mechanical arm was broken and there was a crack on the plastic cake holder that formed its head, but it was otherwise in good shape.
The robot’s body is now covered in hand-written messages from its fellow travellers, as well as pins and other trinkets it collected along the way.
The other co-creator, David Smith of McMaster University, says some HitchBOT fans appeared to find a sense of national pride in watching it complete the journey.
“People were actually saying, ‘That’s who we are, we can do this, we can pass along a robot from stranger to stranger across the country,'” says Smith.
“Internationally, it also became a focal point of cultural differences, so we had Americans reflecting on whether it would work in the U.S. or in any other country.”
Julie Branch, whose wedding HitchBOT attended in Golden, B.C., agrees the success of HitchBOT says something about Canada.
“I’m not surprised it made it all the way,” says Branch, a 30-year-old lawyer from Calgary.
“I think Canadians are really great and always have a sense of humour.”
Branch says wedding guests spotted HitchBOT along the highway near the Alberta-B.C. boundary and decided to bring it along. Branch hadn’t yet heard of the HitchBOT concept when she saw the robot sitting in a chair at her wedding reception.
“She was the life of the party,” says Branch.
“Our guests just loved her. They took turns taking pictures with her, putting her on their shoulders and dancing with her. It was ridiculous.”
HitchBOT’s voyage officially wrapped up Thursday night in Victoria with a reception at an art space, where dozens of people posed for photos before hearing the creators reflect on the project.
The robot has been invited to be a VIP guest at a technology conference in California’s Silicon Valley next month, and Zeller and Smith are still planning where HitchBOT will go from there.