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Hitch your wagon to a star

Robots that have thumbed their way across Canada – and the galaxy – and one Bot that got away.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, October 2014

Hitchhiking robot - HitchBOT in action on his trans-Canada adventure

HitchBOT in action on his trans-Canada adventure

EVER since 1937 when Westinghouse’s huge clunky Elektro strode forth, puffing on cigarettes and cracking awful jokes over a tinny loudspeaker – later causing a sensation at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – we have been in love with robots.

Asian robotics sank its nascent roots in a suburban house in New Delhi in 1967 where, on a sweltering summer afternoon when the parents were sufficiently comatose, I stuffed my younger brother into a cardboard carton with instructions to perform coded commands. This was my proto-robot-computer. It walked or bumped into things, emitted childlike noises, and spat out little cards with answers when friends asked questions. The project lapsed for lack of funding and the illegible six-year-old handwriting on the cards whose answers bore no relation to the questions. The program failed to reboot or move up to a 1.2 version despite a few well directed smacks and my brother’s failure to honour our confidentiality clause, which resulted in firm, and final, parental intervention.

While Elektro had his clanking climax in the movie, Sex Kittens go to College, perhaps a worthy end to a career that spanned blowing party balloons, Honda’s ASIMO has taken up the challenge, dancing and singing in a lovable iPhone snap-friendly manner.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Described as ‘hardware-store chic’ with yellow dishwashing rubber gloves and a jaunty cut of the jib, HitchBOT did a solo right across Canada

I gave up a brilliant science career to study history despite being thwarted yet again by my brother who was unwilling to participate in profound recreations of the “Carnage at Carthage” or the “Massacre at Thermopylae”. My brother ran from me as fast as he could and now runs gritty marathons, in India, where more people are likely to chase a comely masala dosa, than grind 42km in the heat on a fitness fad.

We have gone from Marvin the, clinically depressed robot in sci-fi send-up, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to R2-D2 the Star Wars beeping ‘thermocapsulary dehousing assister’ or droid for the uninitiated, to 2014 and HitchBOT, a lean but sturdy robot described as ‘hardware-store chic’ with yellow dishwashing rubber gloves, a jaunty cut of the jib, and an upturned thumb to assist in its solo journey right across Canada, thumbing rides. Alone.

HitchBOT is a latter day hitchhiker and his scope, while not galactic, is magnificently transcontinental. The joy of hitchhiking on the open road is a forgotten sensory experience, consigned to the dust heap of history as try-anything-once hippies and flower children fade and terrorist histrionics take centre stage. We’ve all seen Die Hard just a few times too often.

Yet, there is a certain truth in the term, ‘the kindness of strangers’. It’s that unspoken bond with a legless unknown at a pub who will hang on to every word about your ingrown toenail, the sharing of intimate moments with another storm-tossed beer-befuddled traveller who has no capacity to judge. There is an element of blind trust in an upturned thumb, foolishness perhaps, but there’s no denying the thrill of discovery and adventure around the corner, be it a babbling inner child, a RM1 dosa in Penang, or a clean loo in India.

HitchBOT’s heart-warming travels from Halifax to Victoria, were the result of a university experiment to launch a talking robot into the ‘wild’ utterly dependent on kindly human intervention. He was been picked up, transported, photographed, and interviewed by CBS, with his journey documented on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  A Belgian tourist couple who gave HitchBOT a ride from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, said, “It was really cool… three strange people in a strange land.”

This experiment proves something the world has long suspected – the Canadians are awfully nice people. Whether it’s a Google-glass-wearing techie headed to Toronto or a nervous teen on a coming-of-age journey to Lake Minnewanka, people will stop, smile and send you on your way.

HitchBOT likes electronic music like Mr Roboto (which he plays incessantly) and astrophysics. Perhaps one day doomsday cultists will be thrilled see the Earth blown up to make way for yet another galactic highway, and Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect (the protagonists from the Hitchhiker’s Guide) will return to pluck young HitchBOT to the stars for a truly transcendental experience, sans Selfies and Facebook.

Hitchhiking taps into a neural network that we know exists, but never get to see. Practised sensibly, it is an eye-opener, a rite of passage to the lower fringes of adulthood. Others smitten by wanderlust never stop raising their thumbs. Peripatetics from Cambodia and Thailand to India and Turkey have penned their advice and adventures on Hitchwiki. About India, the guide says, “A ride may be sometimes difficult to get as some local hitchhikers actually turn out to be robbers and dacoits who flag down vehicles and loot them.” It directs would-be travellers to trucks, adding, “It is best to humour the driver… silence may lead to sullen behaviour and even hostility.”  Well…

I am keen to make an Asian version of HitchBOT. It will need to travel vast distances and face mind-boggling challenges as it crosses borders riven with conflict, plagued by bot-halting visa regulations, and beset with pirates.

I have a sturdy cardboard carton. Now, has anyone seen my brother?


Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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