Oh, the people I meet at CoMotion. A juggler, a magician, and now one of the creators of Hitchbot — the hitch-hiking robot that saw so much of the world…before that fateful night in Philly.
Colin Gagich heads up NVC Software Solutions here at CoMotion On King where he and his team jam away on custom software and mobile app development. A coworking space like this seems like a perfect spot for a small tech biz; and they have a pretty nice set up here. But, what brought my giddy, ear-to-ear grin over to the NVC office was Hitchbot. Colin was the developer on the Hitchbot team — and he was the man monitoring the robot’s adventuring progress.
The more I learn about Hitchbot the more in the dark I feel. Hitchbot was big. Really big. Yet somehow it evaded my radar. Created as joint project between Ryerson and McMaster back in 2014, the brainchild of Dr. David Harris Smith and Frauke Zeller, a team was amassed to create this adventure-seeking, social robot. To an average Joe like me, this was a meld of communications, psychology and/or sociology, and some super cool robotics.
How will people react to a robot looking for a ride across the country?
This was the question that set it all in motion. A bit of a social experiment to gain a few insights into robot-human relationships. The communications element of this experiment was also important. Prior to setting out on this epic, cross-Canada journey from Halifax to Victoria, the media was made aware of Hitchbot’s aspirations. People were also invited to follow the travels online, and through social media; and even see the pics that Hitchbot snapped along the way.
Setting out on a trailblazing cross-Canada adventure.
To get the Canadian adventure started, Hitchbot was dropped on the side of a Halifax highway. According to Colin — who, for the emotional send-off, was hiding in the bushes — the inaugural ride was hitched within about 2 minutes. Human or robot, that’s impressive.
Hitchbot did carry a suggested itinerary, but those who picked it up tended to set out on adventures of their own. All along the way, the robot generated piles of media attention; a pleasant surprise to the team.
The Wedding Crasher.
Once the robot reached Calgary, it even attended a wedding. Things got a tad tense there. See, Hitchbot was programmed to be social. It wasn’t programmed, as guests allegedly commanded, to “shut the hell up”. So, the chipper, chatty traveler was relegated to a closet for the ceremony.
Wedding disruptions aside, the journey to Victoria B.C. was a success. A total of 19 rides over 26 days and never was Hitchbot left waiting around with his thumb out. Instead, the Twitterverse had his back. A constant state of being handed off to willing chauffeurs, eager to whisk it away to the next adventure.
Hitchbot also had successful sightseeing escapades in the Netherlands and Germany. Without exception, the digital dynamo was treated like gold; made to feel at home. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for an interesting story. But, not to worry, the good ol’ U.S of A. was our friendly robot’s next stop.
Hitchbot vs. America, the beautiful.
Well, the tour of the U.S. started out well enough. Beginning in Boston, bound for San Fran, Hitchbot’s excitement was reflected in a fairly ambitious bucket list. A friendly Beantowner took it to Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game, knocking off a listed item; even getting to head out on to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch before the game. Things proceeded smoothly to New York City as well. A stop at Rockefeller Center and Times Square, posing for plenty of pictures with friendly New Yorkers.
That night in Philly.
For reasons befuddling to nearly everyone, Hitchbot’s journey to San Francisco sent him further down the eastern seaboard to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. Now, what exactly happened here is still a bit of a mystery. What we do know is that the demise of Hitchbot was gruesome (well, for a robot, anyway) and premeditated. Gutted and decapitated, the robot’s limp body was returned to the vicinity from where it was picked up. This wasn’t simply a robbery for electronics; this was a cold barbaric statement. The ‘death’ was reported on social media pretty quickly. And adding trauma to an already tough situation, Colin had to confirm the identity of the body. Game over.
The hasty search for justice.
Hitchbot’s last known carriers were YouTube pranksters, PrankvsPrank. Looking for swift, arbitrary justice, seething followers on social media pointed fingers in their direction. The media even had apparent-video evidence that they were the culprits. However, these pros quickly revealed in a follow up post that they’d created this evidence and taken the world for suckers — another well-timed, well-orchestrated ruse. Further investigation and follow up conversations confirmed that these weren’t the guys.
To their credit, the city of Philadelphia offered help and resources to solve this case. Though, some in their citizenry noted that this incident certainly wasn’t going to help an already iffy civic reputation; thanks in-part to Santa Claus being booed and pelted with snowballs, an obsession with a make-believe boxer, and being the pioneers of on-ice violence. Even the Philly police stepped up to help get to the bottom of Hitchbot’s murder. Alas, Colin and the team weren’t up for turning this adventure into any witch-hunt.
Now where is Hitchbot?
Today, the original Hitchbot — albeit, with a rebuilt head — resides in a permanent, commemorative exhibit at the Canadian Sciences and Technology Museum in Ottawa. The Hintz Nixdorf Museum, “the world’s biggest computer museum” in Germany also has an exhibit that features a replica. Truly impressive honours.
Although Hitchbot appears to have had his wings clipped for the time being, the interest generated has opened up some great new opportunities for Colin to apply his skills. Companies are interested in social robots for various applications. One example being Airbus, who is using Colin’s expertise to develop a social robot for use in low gravity. That sounds like a pretty sweet gig. IBM is another who is interested in Colin’s expertise to expand their capabilities.
It’s obvious that the demand for interactive robots is on the rise; especially as the technology becomes more and more refined. But the idea that opportunities have arisen, in part, due to a fun-loving, hitch-hiking robot — that was senselessly beaten back into 1’s and 0’s — is pretty awesome.