17 July 2014

Meet Jibo, the world’s first family robot built by MIT’s social robotics master

Jibo robot

Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT professor and one of the pioneers of social robotics, has unveiled “the world’s first family robot.” Called Jibo, the all-white desktop-sitting robot has more than a passing resemblance to a certain robot from a recent animated Pixar movie. The robot, which will cost around $500 when it’s released, will have a range of abilities that will hopefully make it the perfect companion to have around the house such as telling stories to kids, automatically taking photos when you pose, easy messaging and video calling, providing reminders for calendar entries, and companionship through emotional interaction.

Jibo is about 11 inches (28cm) tall, with a 6-inch base. He (yes, it’s a he) weighs around six pounds (2.7kg) and is mostly made of aluminium and white plastic. Jibo’s face mainly consists of a 5.7 inch 1980×1080 touchscreen, but there’s a couple of stereo cameras, stereo speakers, and stereo microphones hidden away in there too. Jibo’s body is separated into three regions, all of which can be motor-driven through 360 degrees and it’s all fully touch sensitive, too, so you can interact by patting him on the head, poking his belly, etc.

While its hardware is pretty impressive for $500, a companion robot is nothing without some really, really good software and fortunately, it sounds like Jibo will deliver on that front as well. Jibo will: Recognize and track the faces of family members; allow for natural language input from anywhere in the room; proactively help when it recognizes you’re doing a task that it can help with (i.e. cooking); and, judging by the video, Jibo has some pretty nice speech synthesis software, too.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Jibo’s operating system (Linux-based) is being built from the ground up to be extensible with apps. Jibo will ship with a number of default apps called “skills” but there’s also an SDK that will allow developers to create (and sell) their own apps/skills to extend the robot’s functionality. For example, out of the box, Jibo will be able to tell bedtime stories to kids but you might then download a third-party app that gives Jibo the additional ability to help kids with their homework.

Jibo prototype, brain surgery
One wonders if Jibo is programmed to say things like “ow, you’re hurting me” when you cut open his head.

Now the big caveat: Jibo is currently just a prototype, and Breazeal and co are using Indiegogo to raise funds and interest for a commercial release in late 2015/early 2016. It costs $500 for a consumer version, or $600 for a developer Jibo with the SDK. Early reports from a handful of tech sites say that Jibo currently only performs a few predefined actions (but apparently his movements are pretty slick). Considering the all-star team that Breazeal has enlisted to help her commercialize her extensive knowledge of social robotics, and the fact that Jibo has already raised $70,000 of its $100,000 funding goal in the time it took me to write this story, I am pretty confident that the “world’s first family robot” will actually come to market.

Jibo robot, animated GIF

Do you actually want a family robot?

As with any shiny new gizmo, it’s all to easy to be distracted by hardware and software technicalities. Just for a moment, push aside the specs and consider a much more pertinent question: Do you actually want or need a family robot?

This is a complex question. I think most people would love to have a “guardian angel” robot that magically turns up when you really need it (say, when you fall down some stairs or when you misplace the keys). I’m not so sure if people want a glorified, static Furby that provides only questionable usefulness for a limited set of tasks.

As always with social robots, I think it will come down to Jibo’s usefulness and how it actually feels to use and interact with him. It is very, very hard to craft an artificial intelligence that is enjoyable to interact with. But who knows hopefully Breazeal has cracked it. Otherwise, Jibo will be just like every other expensive robot that you’ve purchased over the last decade or so: Kind of cool for a few days/weeks, but ultimately a dust-collecting bookend.



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