Jibo vs. the Smartphone and the Future of Conversational Robots

In the current issue of Popular Mechanics, Billy Baker published an interview with Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor at MIT, Founder of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, and Founder and CEO of Jibo. I wrote about the social robot Jibo in an earlier post. If the engaging little robot works as promised, it will be highly conversational.

JiboJibo is targeted to ship one year from now. While Baker’s article doesn’t delve into the specifics of the robot’s current state of development, you get the sense that there’s still a good bit of work to be done before it’s ready to ship. 4,800 units were pre-ordered as part of a very successful Indiegogo campaign. But once the early adopters have their Jibo, what happens next?

Baker titled his article The Jibo Controversy. The controversy Baker refers to is disagreement over whether a product like Jibo is even needed, or if it’s a cute, but frivolous device. Though they aren’t designed to be quite as cute or social, the same controversy swirls around WiFi-enabled smart “home assistants” like the Ubi, EmoSpark, and Amazon’s Echo. Will people want to use these devices? What need do they address or gap in the market do they fill? And the biggest question of all is: will people put down their smartphones long enough to even see that the robot is sitting there waiting on a trigger word?

I met Dr. Roberto Pieraccini, responsible for Conversational Technologies at Jibo, at two technology conferences this year. At one point, I had a chance to speak to him briefly. I asked him the obvious question. How can Jibo compete with the smartphone? We’re all already so tethered to our mobile device, can anything pry us away from it? Pieraccini answered frankly that he didn’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

During the interview with Baker, Breazeal made it clear her social robot is all about getting people to put away their phones and re-enter the world around them. The mother of three boys, Breazeal often finds her conversations with her children cut short by their addiction to those little screens we all carry around. The current user interface for smart technology is, in Breazeal’s opinion, undermining our relationships with the people around us. To paraphrase Breazeal from Baker’s interview, she says that one of the primary goals of Jibo is to allow people to stay in their life, in the real world, in the moment, instead of having to find their device, enter their passcode to unlock it, and open an app.

Breazeal also dislikes that fact that smartphones are strictly linked to an individual. This exclusion of others from “my device” adds to the force field of isolation they conjure up around us. Jibo, on the other hand, is a family or communal assistant. Everyone in the household can talk to it and it can even help foster communication between family members.

I like Breazeal’s vision for more inclusive conversational assistants that are easily accessible within our normal environment. I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict that our interactions with smart technology are bound to become more seamless. Having to look at or talk to a smartphone is annoying and hopefully a transitory necessity. But will we want to give up our individual assistants in favor of ones shared by the whole family? What if I want to ask my assistant a question I’d rather it didn’t share with my parents? And what if I want my assistant to go everywhere that I go, and not just wait for me at home in the kitchen?

It won’t be long before we’ll find out the answers to these questions. I believe there is a future for smart conversational home assistants. Like Baker, I’m just not sure how that future will take shape. But I hope that Jibo and other like-minded smart machines will become our helpful partners.

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.