Social Robots on the Move

MIT Robotics professor Cynthia Breazeal recently launched JIBO, a social robot, via a Kickstarter campaign. Like the social AI cube EmoSpark, JIBO seems to have struck a chord with crowdfunding audiences. With 28 days still to go, the JIBO project has raised $656K, far exceeding its funding goal.

JIBOSo what is it that people find so compelling about social robots? Some folks are probably intrigued by the prospect of having a robot companion that brings to life the type of intelligent robot friends they’re familiar with from science fiction. Others might just find JIBO’s cute robot personality attractive and want one for their own.

JIBO is being pitched as a robot for the family. It has facial recognition software that allows it to tell who people are and to speak to them by name and deliver messages that are meant for them. It’s also supposed to be able to tell stories to children. JIBO is equipped with a round screen for a face and it can change its expression or display graphics to emphasize what it’s saying.

Based on an interview with Dr. Breazeal, it sounds like JIBO has limited conversational ability at this point. It’s programmed to recognize certain commands and carry out specific functions. The idea is that JIBO’s capabilities will expand over time. A Software Developer Kit (SDK) will allow programmers to write new code that accesses JIBO’s sensory systems and brain and add new features to JIBO. I suppose content creators might be able to use the SDK to add new stories to JIBO’s storytelling repertoire too, but that’s not spelled out explicitly.

EmoSpark, which was launched earlier this year on its own successful Indiegogo campaign, isn’t nearly as cute as JIBO. EmoSpark looks more like a funky clock-radio. It’s a talking cube. Like JIBO, it works via a WiFi connection. But based on the demos, EmoSpark is aiming to be somewhat more conversational. It will have access to Freebase in order to respond to fact-based questions. EmoSpark is also being pitched as an emotionally aware robot.

At the present time, though, neither EmoSpark nor JIBO have actually shipped. Both are still in the design and/or production phase. So it remains to be seen what features, and how much real conversational ability, will make it into the shipped versions of both social robots. There’s no doubt that social robots are creating a lot of buzz, though. And the market for these products, even if they’re more like toys than robots at this point, seems strong.

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