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Hitchhiking robot enters final leg of journey

KELOWNA, B.C. - The chatty, social-media-savvy robot that's been thumbing rides with Canadians over the past three weeks is nearing the end of its Halifax-to-Victoria hitchhiking adventure.

Its creators say the last time it checked in early Wednesday morning Hitchbot was passing through Kelowna, B.C., on its way to the Open Space art centre on Vancouver Island.

"We were expecting the unexpected," said the robot's co-creator David Smith, who teaches in the department of communication studies at McMaster University in Hamilton. "But there's no way that we could have expected the number of really memorable and significant events that Hitchbot participated in."

Since its more than 6,000-kilometre journey began in Nova Scotia on July 26, the Wellie-wearing robot has been camping in New Brunswick's Kouchibouguac National Park, attended a First Nations powwow on Manitoulin Island in Ontario and even crashed a wedding in Golden, B.C.

Hitchbot is an interdisciplinary research project conceived by a team of Ontario-based communications researchers studying the evolving relationship between people and technology.

"It's been really, really exciting," said Smith from his office in Hamilton. "We've been actually really impressed and in some cases deeply moved by people's responses."

Hitchbot has dipped its yellow Wellington boots in Lake Superior, taken in some musical performances in Kelowna and even shaken its robo-booty to the Harlem Shake while passing through the Prairies.

Along the way, it has kept track of its adventures on social media, where tens of thousands of fans follow its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram updates.

That's in addition to the hundreds of people who have met the robot face to lens, said Smith.

As of Wednesday, its Instagram following was approaching 11,000. Its Facebook account had garnered more than 41,000 likes and nearly 32,000 people had followed it on Twitter.

As for what's next, Smith said Hitchbot and its team have been invited to present at an innovation and entrepreneurship conference in Silicon Valley in September, as well as planned visits to various museums and galleries across Canada.

Smith said he also hopes to organize stopovers to some of the communities that had expressed disappointment that Hitchbot had been unable to thumb through and say hello.

"As an artistic work, one of the things you hope for is public engagement, stimulating the imagination, maybe instilling a sense of wonder and curiosity," said Smith. "I think Hitchbot has done this beyond all expectations."

Looking further ahead, Smith said he has mused about sending a Hitchbot-like robot on an open-ended journey.

He likened the idea to the Voyageur space program, which saw NASA launch two unmanned probes into deep space in the 1970s, which were programmed to continue to communicate with their creators but would never return.

In the meantime, when asked whether plans were in the works for a return hitchhiking journey from the West Coast, Smith's answer was vague.

"You never know," he said, laughing. "It's too soon to say no is all I'm saying."

— By Geordon Omand in Halifax

Follow @gwomand on Twitter.

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