HitchBOT abroad. Talk with hitchBOT co-creator Frauke Zeller about robots, language and academia

hitchBOT on tour in the US Enlarge image (© Frauke Zeller/Meaghan Carrocci) Frauke Zeller is Assistant Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University. After studying in Kassel and completing her Habilitation, the highest academic degree in Germany, in Ilmenau, she was awarded one of the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship by the European Commission. Following her time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and University College London, she accepted an offer from Ryerson University that made Toronto her new home. Ms. Zeller is best-known as one of the co-creators of hitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot with Wellington boots and a twitter account that has traveled across multiple countries. First conceived in 2013, the collaborative art project explores a familiar question from an entirely new perspective: "Can robots trust human beings?" We talked to Frauke Zeller about creating hitchBOT, media strategies, and academia in Germany and Canada.

The hitchBOT you and David Harris Smith developed often makes the news, and was recently travelling the United States. Could you tell us a bit about the project?
Frauke Zeller: It's a very interesting project. I did my PhD in human-robot interaction, my Habilitation was in Media and Communication Studies. So I was able, together with David, to combine those areas.  And I thought this was very exciting, because usually in human-robot interaction we don't have this media dimension. We needed a media strategy, because people had to know what hitchBOT was. Otherwise, people might not react if they saw this little thing on the side of the road. In the end, I was really surprised about how much people loved it and how well it was received in the media. Frauke Zeller and hitchBOT Enlarge image (© German Consulate General Toronto)

How important was and is the media strategy for the hitchBOT project?

When I hired two of my Master students last year and told them “I want you to work out a social media strategy for a robot that is going to be hitchhiking across Canada”, they looked at me as if I was crazy. But they took up the challenge and they did a marvelous job. Together we managed to have hitchBOT go viral on social media, and the traditional media system in Canada was really supportive as well. Now almost 50% of the whole project is all about communication. As a researcher, this gives me a lot of new insights and an innovative approach. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to ask my students to show me what they've learned. It's great fun and I really couldn't do it on my own... If you are successful on social media, you have to be on it all the time.

hitchBOT went on a journey through Canada last summer and this February it traveled though Germany. Can you name differences that accrued during these two trips?
FZ: In Germany, the popular science education TV program Galileo did a documentary about hitchBot. So that was different, having a camera team. What was not different was how much people loved hitchBOT. Wherever we went in Germany, everybody would recognize it. It's really interesting to see how people respond and again, just like in Canada, they were really enthusiastic and took good care of it. I think it really shows that there's some good nature in people. And it was nice having it there in my home country.

hitchBOT on tour in the U.S. Enlarge image (© Frauke Zeller) Which language was easier for hitchBOT – English or German?

FZ: English, absolutely. I'm a linguist, and German, of course, is an inflected language, so it was really, really tough teaching it German. But I did enjoy it, because I could speak with it in my mother tongue. I really loved that. Now though, hitchBOT is back to speaking English only, because it is difficult from a technical point of view to integrate two speech engines.

When it comes to studying, teaching and research in Germany and Canada, what can Germany learn from Canada and vice versa?
FZ: I think those two systems, it's like comparing apples and oranges. The teaching load in Germany is higher, compared to Canada, whereas the reputation of a professor is different in Germany. For instance, it is natural for my students here to call me by my first name. This is something I would never have dared doing with my professors in Germany. Research is quite open both here and in Germany. However, the fact that the winter term here ends at the beginning of April gives you five months for research, which is wonderful. Teaching is very important here, too. You are evaluated by your students but also by your peers. The latter was something new to me. In Germany it still really depends on your university how strongly you are evaluated in your teaching. Very often you are not evaluated at all, although I believe that this is changing now.  Asking “Can't we do some of these things in Germany?” or saying “Well, we did that differently in Germany” would be unfair, because the two systems are too different. When I came here, I had to learn everything anew. That was kind of exciting. As an experienced researcher and lecturer in Germany, I was suddenly confronted with completely new rules and policies.

hitchBOT on tour in the U.S. Enlarge image (© Frauke Zeller) The title of our interview series is “I am German”. Do you identify with that?
FZ: Yes, obviously. I have a German passport and I lived so many years in Germany. Although I was always interested in other cultures and I always wanted to travel, I wasn't really planning on emigrating until I did the Marie Curie Fellowship. I think one really learns what it means to be of a certain nationality when being abroad, because you can tell that we have different traditions, different points of views... a different habitus, really.

Assuming you don’t hitchhike, what are your preferred ways of getting around in Toronto?
FZ: Actually, I live in Port Credit, so I take the GO Train. I love the fact I can use public transit. When the weather is nice, I usually walk to Ryerson. Sometimes I use the subway when I'm visiting friends in Toronto, but I lived in London, UK, so I find the subway here interesting, because it just doesn't get you everywhere. Coming from Europe, I just don't understand why not.





Frauke Zeller

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Video: hitchBOT travelling the USA

Video: hitchBOT travelling the USA

Frauke Zeller and hitchBOT - Picture Gallery