HitchBOT comes home

Taking a selfie with hitchBOT. Photo: Erica Ngao

Taking a selfie with hitchBOT.
Photo: Erica Ngao

Lily Beaul asks, “What do you think about Game of Thrones?”

“It’s my favourite. Everyone dies and none of them are robots,” hitchBOT replies.

Beaul is one of the six students responsible for creating the wellington-wearing, smartass-replying hitchhiking robot that travelled over 6,000 kilometres across Canada this summer. On Monday, the team gave a behind the scenes look at hitchBOT whose journey went viral.

The robot was first envisioned in 2013 by Ryerson’s Frauke Zeller, assistant professor in the School of Professional Communication and David Harris Smith, assistant professor in the department of communication studies and multimedia at McMaster University.

Beaul, a McMaster graduate currently entering an MA in communication and new media was responsible for dialogue modelling and said she’s the one responsible for not making hitchBOT shut up. She took 200 questions that the robot could be asked and generated what she said are a million of possible responses.

“Why are you doing this?” and “Don’t you have feelings?” asked hitchBOT when Smith took off the robots cake-display head to showcase the tablet and wires inside the body all held in place with duct-tape.

Inside the robot’s beer cooler bucket torso is a conventional tablet PC running a version of Cleverscript, an artificial intelligence program designed to converse with humans also keeps track of hitchBOT’s location and takes pictures from his point of view. If hitchBOT’s power runs out as it is waiting for its next ride, written instructions on its body will tell people how to strap it into the car and recharge from car cigarette lighters or a regular outlet.

Colin Gagich and Dominik Kaukinen are both mechatronics engineering and management students at McMaster and the developers of hitchBOT. Kaukinen said the tablet that acts as hitchBOT’s electronic brain has also been reprogrammed specifically for this purpose using javascript.

Photo: Erica Ngao

Photo: Erica Ngao

Photo: Erica Ngao

Photo: Erica Ngao

Gagich said all the coding can be found on GitHub that allows hitchBOT to tap into its virtual servers and not only speak in person but tweet at the same time. And that’s exactly what hitchBOT did.

Jacky Au Duong and Alanna Mager, both recent graduates of professional communication at Ryerson, dealt with media relations, social media and web content. One day, when Mager, who was focusing on social media, was taking a day off, HitchBOT was getting a lot of attention on Twitter.

Au Duong decided to check out what was going on and it turned out hitchBOT had been tweeting for some time on its own. “One of the responses that I had caught because it had so many retweets and favourites was HitchBOT telling the world on Twitter that they were being rude. This is right after he had asked what everyone’s favourite colour was,” said Au Duong, “It’s a tough lesson learned that taught me that social media never sleeps even when you want to.”

Au Duong says 10 years ago, this project wouldn’t have been able to be as successful or even happen as it has. “Twitter was a huge part of our strategy and Twitter wasn’t around until 2006 and even then it didn’t pick up a lot steam. Right away we started a promotional strategy that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to contact influencers on Twitter. 10 years ago without virility where it is today, we wouldn’t have been able to throw this out there and expect the recognition it’s gotten.”

Meaghan Carrocci, recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Communication and New Media program at McMaster, worked on web development, video functions and graphic design. Carrocci worked with Gagich to make a video on Vimeo before hitchBOT took the road to get the word out. She said the video has now received around 370 thousand views.

From the conception of this idea, to development, to web circulation, Zeller said, this project was able to show the necessity of multidisciplinary teams, something that Ryerson continues to excel in.