HitchBOT – housed in a bucket and equipped mainly with the ability to ask nicely for a ride – managed to hitch-hike 6000 kilometers, across Canada, in under a month. Not bad, considering she doesn’t have any way to move without help from humans.
This little robot brings to mind a lot of big ideas. Most humans think of technology as something that helps them, yet here is a robot asking for help. Hitchhiking has almost disappeared from North America because of safety concerns, yet here’s a traveler people happily pick up. Science fiction taught Westerners to fear robots for decades, yet this robot mostly just makes people happy.
Let’s go over what this all might mean, while looking at a few photos from HitchBOT’s trip.
Our Relationships With Technology
We all have relationships with technology, and those relationships are intimate – many people spend more time touching their phone than their significant other, for example. But whatever our relationship with our devices may be, for the most part we think of our devices as tools – not people.
HitchBOT is different. Give a computer a face, a voice and the ability to converse (HitchtBOT can discuss anything mentioned on Wikipedia) and people will call that computer “her” instead of “it”.
It’s a subtle difference, and you might argue that this personification has more to do with people’s imagination that it does with HitchBOT herself. And HitchBOT would be quick to admit it: “I’m the product of human imagination,” she frequently says.
Still, there’s something to learn here. Giving technology personality makes people like that technology more. The geek humour included in Microsoft Phone’s virtual assistant, and Siri for that matter, is there for a reason: people feel more comfortable with AI when it’s friendly. Expect to see more examples of technology taking on playful personas in the future.
Is HitchBOT A Person?
It’s a long-running theme in science fiction: when will computers become self-aware? A popular answer to this question is the Turing test, which states machines can be called “conscious” at the point when ordinary people can’t tell the difference between talking to a machine and talking to a person. My colleague Joel went over what the Turing test is and what it means, if you’re interested.
HitchBOT wouldn’t pass the Turing test, and I don’t think her creators intended her to. But the fact remains that HitchBOT was designed to be social, and proved effective at being social. She asked humans for help, and they helped her – expecting nothing but company in return.
Not only did they help her, it seems like they usually ended up liking her. So while she might not be aware that she’s communicating with people, she is effective at it. So what’s the difference?
Whether a machine is aware of what it’s doing may be completely irrelevant. Stanford lecturer Jerry Kaplan said, in a recent episode of On The Media, that asking if a machine is thinking is like asking if a submarine is swimming. It’s simply not a question that makes sense to ask.
On Hitchhiking And Trust
Professor David Harris Smith, one of the people behind HitchBot, hitch-hiked across Canada when he was younger. It was a chance to travel, and a chance to meet new people – but in 2014 it would be hard for a human to do what HitchBOT just did. People don’t pick up hitchhikers anymore – the culture has changed.
HitchBOT, according to Smith, is in part a commentary on this fact.
“HitchBOT is meant to stimulate reflection on the change in our culture, in the change in our social psychology,” he told the CBC.
Most of us don’t pick up hitch-hikers, possibly because we fear for our safety. Yet for some reason dozens of people decided giving a lift to a talking bucket is perfectly fine.
Why is that? Is it because while we don’t know what a human’s motive might be, we assume a machine doesn’t have one? That it won’t hurt us?
Whatever the reason, I’m not sure I could hitch-hike across Canada in three weeks – people just don’t pick up hitch-hikers like they used to.
Not human hitch-hickers, anyway.
Can Machines Trust Humans?
Of course, hitch-hiking isn’t only potentially dangerous if you’re picking people up: getting into a stranger’s car is also a risk. The fact is that any one of the people who picked up HitchBOT could have taken her apart, sold her for parts or simply kept her as a pet/mascot.
No one did.
Science fiction talks a lot about whether we, as humans, should trust robots. The Matrix and Terminator films depict worlds where our creations try to murder us. But another question, asked by films like AI, is whether machines should trust humans.
Professor Frank Zeller, another one of the people behind HitchBOT, says the robot’s quick progress across Canada shows “robots can trust human beings.”
HitchBOT is just one robot, but she never had any reason to distrust any of the humans she met during her trip. People went out of their way to help her. At the end of the day, most of us want to be helpful.
Is This Just a Canadian Thing?
“But wait,” you might be saying. “This is Canada you’re talking about. You can’t make any statements about human nature based on that.”
If the Canadian people have a global reputation, it’s for niceness. Every traveler I meet who’s visited my native country at some point comments on how nice everyone was.
So naturally many people say the HitchBOT experiment doesn’t prove anything about human-machine interactions; that it only proves Canadians are nice to anyone and anything.
“Hitchbot’s US cousin was beaten down and sold for scrap parts just 30 yards from where he started,” joked my colleague Guy McDowell, “and that was by the police.”
It’s funny, sure, but we’ll get a chance to see how true it is. HitchBOT’s website says the plan will be to try this in other countries, and I bet the US will be one of the first. My prediction: she makes it coast to coast without a hitch.
Humans And Machines
The relationship between humans and machines is only going to get more complicated. Self-driving cars and similar technologies are going to change every sector of the economy sooner than most people realize, as a recent video by CGP Grey so aptly points out.
These are big questions, and as a society we need to find answers to them. I’m not sure what those answers are going to be, but I hope HitchBOT can remind us how all machines are the product of human imagination – and get us to think about what that means.
Watch what the guys at Technophilia had to say about HitchBOT!