HitchBOT to become Germany’s newest TV subject

Ryerson and McMaster University have collaborated with a popular German show to send hitchBOT to explore Europe.

On Feb. 13, the Canadian hitchhiking robot starts its 10-day journey in Munich, which will be documented for the German science and “edutainment” show, Galileo.

Ryerson and ProSieBen, the show’s broadcaster, hired Isabella Kempf, a German social media co-ordinator to run the online pages. She’s also a friend of Frauke Zeller, one of the co-creators of hitchBOT and an assistant professor at Ryerson’s school of professional communication.

HitchBOT has technology that allows it to converse with humans. It has basic speech recognition and processing technology to understand basic dialogues programmed by the team.

The team thought of questions people would ask and programmed answers that matched hitchBOT’s personality.

It can answer questions like where it’s going and who are its creators. As a tourist, hitchBOT knows how to say, “please” and “thank you.” It can also say “please plug me in” when its battery is low.


Hitchhiking robot, hitchBOT, is learning German for his trip to Munich. (Courtesy Open Space Arts Society)

It also knows about conversation topics like food, music, beer, soccer, German actors, and the history of the different places it may visit.

They’re working on translating these dialogues to German, but it’s not simple, Zeller said. People need to translate the dialogues before a markup code is used to process it.

But hitchBOT isn’t capable of creating its own sentences. It can only use the dialogues that are programmed in it.

But sometimes there’s too much dialogue, background noise or too many people speaking. When this happens, it doesn’t say anything.

It will be “overwhelmed, shuts down and needs a little break,” said Kempf.

If there’s a silence, it comes up with an answer that’s random. Kempf said the result “can be funny of course.”

The contract with Galileo will have the show follow hitchBOT, as it travels the autobahn, Germany’s highway system that doesn’t have a speed limit, and report on hitchBOT’s progress throughout the 10 days.

The purpose of the trip is to learn how the Germans will respond to hitchBOT, after its success in Canada. The Canadian experiment saw hitchBOT travel from Halifax to Victoria, B.C., without its creators and relying only on the help of strangers.

The purpose was to examine whether robots were capable of trusting humans.

Zeller, who is German, and David Harris Smith, assistant professor in the department of communication studies and multimedia at McMaster, will be going to Germany with hitchBOT. But they won’t accompany it on its journey.

Zeller said she’s basically going home for this trip and is curious as to where the Germans will take hitchBOT.

“Personally, I’m interested in thinking, ‘what do other Germans think? What are the nicest places in Germany?’”

While there isn’t a set plan for hitchBOT because it will be hitchhiking, there are certain places that the team wants hitchBOT to visit, including the Rose Monday Carnival in Cologne on Feb 16.

This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb 4, 2015.

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