With its thumb raised skyward and a grin on its digital face, the robotic creation of two researchers in Canada is about to start hitchhiking across the US. The humanoid robot named hitchBOT has already caught rides across Canada and in Europe, relying on the kindness and curiosity of strangers. But today it starts its first US tour, setting out from Salem, Massachusetts, with dreams of San Francisco ahead. Along the way, it hopes to see some quintessential American sites, including Times Square, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon. The kid-size robot speaks English and is immobile on its own, so it gets from place to place by being schlepped around by strangers. Travelers can pass it off to others they meet, or leave it at a gas station or shop.
They can just leave it seated on its kickstand with its thumb raised. Ideally, the creators hope, drivers won't leave the bot along busy roads and will charge the battery when it runs low. Otherwise, there are no rules. "We want to see what people do with this kind of technology when we leave it up to them," says Frauke Zeller, one of the creators and an assistant professor in professional communication at Toronto's Ryerson University. "It's an art project in the wild—it invites people to participate." A GPS in the robot can track its location, and a camera randomly snaps photos about every 20 minutes to document its travels. But the team behind the robot seeks permission from people in the photos before posting them to social media, where hitchBOT has built a devoted fan base. (See its Storify page and its Twitter feed.)