Innovation Heroes: A hitchhiking robot’s guide to the future:
Season 3, Episode 3: Remember HitchBOT? We speak to the researchers behind this groundbreaking robot

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The lovable Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6 was designed as a medical assistant. But if you ask Dr. Frauke Zeller, it’s the robot’s social skills that make it special.

“With Baymax, you have a robot that talks to people, and facilitates interaction. I mean, yes, its primary function is to be a medical assistant, but it still talks to people, and it still makes people feel things. That’s social robotics,” she says.

Dr. Zeller should know. She is a leading social robotics researcher from X University in Toronto. And it was her work, supported by doctoral candidate Lauren Dwyer, that gained viral fame with the hitchBot project. Both of the researchers joined Ed McNamara on the latest episode of Innovation Heroes to discuss social robotics and the incredible ways it is transforming industry and reframing human interaction with technology.

HitchBOT rose to fame in 2014 when it began hitchhiking across Canada before moving on to several other countries. Dr. Zeller says the experiment was designed to turn the question of robot trustworthiness on its head.

“Our main question was, ‘Can robots trust humans?’ So that was playing on the question we should always ask, when it comes to technology, ‘Can we trust technology? Can we trust robots? Can we trust AI?’” she says. “So, by turning it around or upside down, we were hoping to get some new insights.”

On the podcast, the two researchers explored the current and near-term use cases of robots in society and industry. Their work centers on better understanding how people interact with technologies and using design to make robots more welcoming and helpful.

“Social robots differ from your standard conception of what a robot might be, in that their primary goal and their number-one function is to communicate and to be social with people. So, the concept of social robotics and this whole field is based around interaction, and interacting with people, and developing those relationships,” said Dwyer.

They went on to discuss how social robots are going mainstream and emerging use cases in industries such as retail and healthcare. As with all things digital, the global pandemic has helped accelerate the adoption of social robotics. Dr. Zeller also pointed out how advancements in artificial intelligence are democratizing access to advanced robots.

One day, we may all have a Baymax around the house to help out and make us feel better. Until then, listen to the podcast episode and subscribe so you never miss a new episode.

Dr. Frauke Zeller is Associate Professor and Director of The Creative School Catalyst & CCK at X University. Lauren Dwyer is a Doctoral Candidate in Communication and Culture, Technology in Practice at X University.  

This episode of Innovation Heroes is brought to you by HP Inc Notebooks on the Intel Evo Platform. Visit to learn more.