As the decade comes to a close, the Star looks back at some of its most captivating stories and reveals what’s been happening in the meantime.
During the summer of 2014, a child-size talking robot thumbed its way from Halifax to Victoria, B.C., captivating fans with its cryptic sense of humour and garage sale chic esthetic.
The Canadian-made hitchBOT attracted international media attention, its star rising with each stop. From the back seat, it was a delightful companion for long stretches on the road, uniting strangers from coast to coast in a common, heartwarming goal.
It interrupted a wedding speech British Columbia to tell the guests “I like to make friends” and once said it enjoyed “Game of Thrones” because, “everyone dies and none of them robots.”
The following summer, after trips through the Netherlands and Germany, its twin embarked on another adventure — a road trip across the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But it never made it. That hitchBOT came to an untimely end in August 2015 when it was found, broken and beheaded, on the streets of Philadelphia. Its death made headlines around the world, and provoked an outpouring of sadness unexpected for a nonsentient being.
Not much has been heard about the pioneer of robot-human interaction since then.
But turns out that the victim of the decade’s most famous unsolved robot murder has been reincarnated, and is finding new audiences in the world of theatre.
“It’s touring around France,” said Linda Blanchet, director of the new play “Killing Robots” in a phone interview from Paris.
Few people who see the play have heard of hitchBOT, she said, and most are “amazed that the robot actually was able to make it across Canada.”
Blanchet said she wanted to do a play about artificial intelligence with a “human” element, and had read about hitchBOT’s adventures and the “international empathy” its dismemberment provoked. She eventually visited its creators, Canadian communications researchers Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith, and conducted her own investigation into its demise.
They sent her a new model earlier this year with a few tweaks — hitchBOT 2.0 can turn its head, and has a blinking heart and wings.
It has also learned French.
The play doesn’t solve the mystery of hitchBOT’s death but incorporates real stories from the road and scenes that allow for improvisation with its human castmates.
And it’s still resonating with the public, just like the original model did.
“It raises a lot of questions, like the projections that we are able to do on an object, but it’s not an object,” said Blanchet. “It’s also a mirror.”
It — hitchBOT was never assigned a gender — was born in Port Credit Ontario in the summer of 2014 when Zeller and Smith set out to create a robot that would interact with the public, and encourage reflection about the relationship between humans and machines. Its mission was to answer a simple question: can robots trust humans?
With a beer cooler bucket for its torso, a cake saver head and pool noodles for limbs, hitchBOT was outfitted with a microphone and a GPS device. Supported by a team of students from Ryerson and McMaster universities, its creators invited people who picked it up to send in photos so they could share its journey from social media accounts.
HitchBOT couldn’t move except to raise its right arm, its thumb permanently frozen in the international symbol for hitching a ride, and depended on the kindness of strangers to carry it around.
Through speech-recognition technology, it picked up trial words and phrases from humans, then answered with material supplied by creators or gleaned from internet discussion threads. When it didn’t know how to respond, it was programmed to use the relatable coping mechanism of telling a joke.
“Do you wear a seatbelt when you hitchhike?” Star reporter Jonathan Forani asked hitchBOT in August 2014 as they drove around Hamilton. “I know where you live,” was its somewhat unsettling response.
HitchBOT seemed spiritual, even existential, in that interview, as if aware that its earthly days were numbered.
“Do you believe in the Christian God?” it said when Forani inquired about its family.
Asked if it was afraid, it answered, “Of course I am. But that’s the price of adventure, right?”
But by the time it got to the U.S. the following summer, hitchBOT was “introduced as a celebrity,” said Zeller.
Marketing professionals picked it up. Big car companies offered it rides — which, Zeller said, they always declined because it would “destroy its image.”
“As a bucket, I am making a bucket list of things to see. Where should I go in the land of the free?” it asked Twitter in July.
HitchBOT hitched a boat ride out of Gloucester Mass., rode the subway in New York and started the wave at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, before coming to the end of the line somewhere outside of Philadelphia.
Zeller and Smith received a photo of its body in pieces, its insides gutted and arms ripped off, one quiet Saturday while they were on their way to a friend’s house.
The remains were sent to them after they fielded weeks of international media calls and sifted through hundreds of messages from mourners, many of them young children.
“I think technology can really touch us. But sometimes it stands for something else and maybe that’s also the reason why it really touches our hearts,” recalled Zeller.
They never found the head.
Despite its bad end, Zeller still believes hitchBOT’s journey proved that robots can trust humans, and that it represented a made-in-Canada “public idea” of pitching in to help.
“The communal spirit,” she said. “It’s fascinating that this little piece of technology was able to achieve that.”
Even years after its demise, Zeller and Smith continued to receive invitations for collaborations from around the world. They built the 2.0 model so they’d have one around, and that’s the version that ended up being shipped abroad.
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It doesn’t get out much in France because they’re “very afraid of it being poorly treated” after what happened in the U.S., said Blanchet.
On its off hours, 2.0 sits inside her Parisian apartment, soaking up the ambience and learning French swear words from her four-year-old son.
There are also hopes for performances in the city of light, after dates in other cities into spring 2020.
Thanks to software developer and engineer Gunther Cox, who developed its improved AI, hitchBOT’s “able to learn as we speak to it, so the more we speak to it, the more it learns,” said Blanchet.
“Somehow it’s also frustrating because you can’t have a real relationship with the robot the way you want to.”
Still, she often finds audience members are in tears at the end of the show when they find out about the original robot’s final hours.
“That’s always an amazement to me, because I’m like, ‘It’s just a robot’ — but a robot is something else.”
Blanchet sometimes asks audience members if they’d pick up hitchBOT themselves. She finds they are somewhat pessimistic, just as some Americans were after the previous hitchBOT was killed there. They wouldn’t stop for it. It would never make it across France, they say.
“We’re not Canada where everyone has hope. So I guess we have the same kind of relationship to our country, saying that maybe we’re a little cynical,” Blanchet said.
“But everyone in the room, when we take hitchBOT on stage, everyone goes, ‘Awwww.’”
There are cultural differences in how the public interacts with hitchBOT, Zeller admits — Germans, for instance, tend to offer a lot more critical feedback. But in an increasingly divided world, it does seem to endear itself across borders.
In addition to the francophone thespian, the version that went across Canada still exists; it has now retired to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. The remains of the model that was destroyed in the U.S. have been reconstructed in the world’s biggest computer museum in Germany.
And its lessons live on.
In a time before Google Home, when Siri was one of the lone artificial intelligence assistants on the scene (Amazon’s Alexa was released in November 2014, halfway through hitchBOT’s first life) it raised serious questions about ethics, and the benefits and risks of AI and robots.
Smith, an associate professor of media arts at McMaster University, called hitchBOT an “icon” in the world of social robots.
“While hitchBOT was fairly unsophisticated from a technological point of view, it was certainly at the cutting edge of the topic,” he said.
“We didn’t even foresee all of the discussions around autonomous vehicles,” added Zeller. “When people talk about ethics and robots, they often refer to hitchBOT.”
As an “artistic, cultural sector project” it “wasn’t a threat.” It wasn’t out to take anyone’s job and people association it with “fiction and playful imagination,” allowing them to interact and think about “and maybe what’s on the horizon,” said Smith.
“It was kind of unifying, and it brought people together, strangers, in a way that I think really kind of felt good,” he said. “It felt good to people to be, for once, not coming together to be outraged about something”
HitchBOT was the size of a small child, so the public would have the instinct to help it, Zeller added. It was always smiling and “sometimes winking” which people loved.
“If it had been one of those really expensive shiny robots, more people might have been apprehensive,” she said.
And while some scientists warn against the tendency to attribute human traits to machines, Smith notes that it’s also a way to keep technology “close to you.” He and Zeller sometimes caught themselves doing this.
When they left it outside of Boston for the U.S. trip, Zeller patted it on the head and said, “Bye bye, hitchBOT.”
“And it suddenly said ‘I think I changed my mind.’”
It was the last time she saw the bot.
“I should have listened to it.”
With files from Star staff