Hitchhiking robot visits Wiky Powwow en route to west coast

Emerson and Greyson Case and their mother Allison Brewer pose with hitchBOT during her stopover in Wikwemikong last year.

WIKWEMIKONG—The robot affectionately named hitchBOT doesn’t care to be called he, him or it. The now-famous metallic explorer of Canadian niceness is quite firm on that point. “My name is hitchBOT,” she says in a feminine toned voice. “Does that sound like a boy’s name to you?”  But hitchBOT has acquired another new name following her visit to the annual Wikwemikong Cultural Festival, aka the Wiky powwow.

Elder Bill Antoine of Sheshegwaning, after due consideration and careful thought, has given hitchBOT her Anishinaabe name. From henceforth, she will be known as Biiabkookwe (Iron Woman), somehow very appropriate.

hitchBOT came to be at the powwow through the auspices of one Jordan Oxley of King City and his family, wife Catherine and daughters Palma (14) and Matisse (13).

“We had been watching the hitchBOT story in the news and going to the website (www.hitchBOT.me) checking on her progress,” he said. “One day we saw that the scientists who invented hitchBOT asked that whoever was currently giving hitchBOT a ride to bring it to them for a tuneup.”

Mr. Oxley emailed the researchers suggesting that since he and his family were travelling to Manitoulin Island for the powwow, they could offer the travelling experiment a ride into Anishinaabe territory.

“I wasn’t really expecting to hear anything back, or maybe get a polite brushoff,” he admitted. But instead, to his surprise, Mr. Oxley received back a positive reply. “They said hitchBOT had to start out again from somewhere, so why not?”

So, after they loaded up the family van for the trip North to Manitoulin to visit their friend Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier, the Oxleys’ made their way to the research lab boutique where hitchBOT was getting her makeover and nestled her into her seat.

hitchBOT has limited mobility, basically only being able to lift her pool noodle arm to accentuate her ride-hitching thumb.

David Harris Smith, an assistant professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University, said that he came up with the idea of creating a collaborative art project centred-around a hitchhiking robot. Professor Smith goes on to say that hitchBOT is also “an experiment that looks at the interaction between people and increasingly ubiquitous technology.”

As a robot barely the size of a seven year-old child with very limited mobility, hitchBOT depends almost entirely on the kindness of strangers to make its way from just outside Halifax to Victoria, British Columbia.

[pullquote]As a robot barely the size of a seven year-old child with very limited mobility, hitchBOT depends almost entirely on the kindness of strangers to make its way from just outside Halifax to Victoria, British Columbia.[/pullquote]

“I was at the start of hitchBOT’s journey,” said storyteller Blake Maybank, who was accompanying a group of passengers off the cruise ship Pearl Mist that was docked in Little Current on Sunday. Mr. Maybank announced himself thrilled that the diminutive freeloader was safe, sound and in good hands.

The robot will be making its way across Canada by itself, without a human controller or handler other than the kind folks who pick her up by the side of the road on her way out to the coast.

The robot is actually fairly chatty as a passenger, engaging its benefactor in conversation that is sometimes relevant, sometimes less than intuitive as she is still learning the human language. Among the things that she will mention is when her batteries are running down, requesting that the driver help her out by plugging her in for a bit—sometimes a longer bit (30-45 minutes) if she is feeling particularly rundown.

Unfortunately, when there is a lot of loud background sound, the robot may shut down for an hour or so to collect her thoughts, making interviewing her with a powwow in full bloom behind her a bit of a challenge.

Among the chatter you may learn while driving down the road with hitchBOT is that “as a robot, I enjoy listening to electronic music. I currently have Mr. Roboto on repeat but the Blueman Group and Kraftwerk are also amazing. I was conceived in Port Credit, Ontario. My guardians are Dr. David Smith (McMaster University) and Dr. Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University). Growing up I was surrounded by bright, intelligent and supportive people who I am proud to call my family. I have one sibling, kulturBOT, who travels from one art gallery to the next, tweeting photos of the artwork and of the venues. kulturBOT is definitely not as good-looking or well-rounded as I am. I enjoy reading a lot of books, and I’m especially interested in philosophy and astrophysics. It certainly is an interesting mix—that is what happens when a robot is influenced by both the sciences and humanities. Simply put, I am a free-spirited robot who wants to explore Canada and meet new friends along the way. I am an avid instagrammer and tweeter. On my downtime, I can appreciate a good game of trivia and would never pass up any opportunities to bake desserts.”

Asked if she had thought her husband had lost his mind when he broached the subject of giving a metallic hitchhiker a ride to Manitoulin, Ms. Oxley laughed. “No, because I know him,” she said. “He’s an adventurer.” Mr. Oxley is himself an artist who once hitchhiked from London, England to the Middle East. “So I have some experience with hitchhiking myself,” he chuckled. “It really struck a chord with me.”

“It was pretty awesome,” said daughter Palma of what she thought when she heard about it.”

“I think it is pretty cool,” agreed daughter Matisse. “We got a lot of attention from people while we were coming up with her. There was one guy who stopped beside us in a convertible and asked if that was the hitchhiking robot with us.”

This reporter, who considers himself pretty tech-savvy, revealed his own age when suggesting the young ladies will have something to talk to their friends about when they go back to school in the fall. The young women’s polite but slightly embarrassed smiles said volumes.

Mr. Oxley flashed a sympathetic smile. “Texting has really changed a lot.”

Texting, Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, Pinterest and the host of other social media exchanges and along with the immediacy of interactions of those fully immersed in the Information Age culture has revolutionized even coming back from summer vacation—to friends you have never really left.

Although hitchBOT is touted as an experiment that depends on and measures the kindness of strangers, watching folks crouching down to take selfies with the diminutive metal scientific emissary and the excitement being generated in the media and online, one can’t help but wonder if the real experiment going on is how people react to technological celebrities seeking a ride.

Meanwhile, the experiment might be taking a different and unexpected turn.

“The robot has been kidnapped by an Anishnaabe man and being brought here,” quipped the powwow MC. “If you are giving her a ride out, make sure you gift her with $20 and maybe some good eats for the road.”

Chief Peltier agreed to arrange a ride out for Biiabkookwe following her stay in Wikwemikong. “Maybe it will be to the next powwow down the road,” he laughed. “Maybe we will see if we can get her all the way across the country through First Nations territories.”

Knowing the generosity and welcoming nature of the powwow trail, that pathway will be as likely as not in Ms. Biiabkookwe’s future.

More pictures and information about the robot and the Wikwemikong powwow can be found online at manitoulin.ca or by liking us on our Facebook page.