Social robots can put us back in the moment, rather than burrowing further into technology

By James Robinson , written on July 21, 2014

From The News Desk

Pop culture has robots wrong. It’s not going to be some garish ‘Rocky IV’ showpiece that wins the day, or some ‘Her’ style artificial intelligence, so real as to make actual human interaction obsolete. I’ve even spoken to hardware people who think that robotics will skip the home altogether, that despite our fascination with making C3PO a real thing, robots will mostly serve menial functions out of sight to us.

Cynthia Breazeal has a more persuasive answer to this than most. The founder of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group, she put almost two decades of expertise on the line last week, taking Jibo, the world’s first family robot, to Indiegogo. Jibo was developed in partnership with the Monsoon Company and spun out of her work in the lab. It's built on an idea that a robot can be a sort of human, household sidekick, making real life more satisfying and putting us back in the moment.

Jibo is the cumulative result of a lot of insight. Breazeal is the sort of big thinker that looked at a robot landing on Mars in the late 1990s and was cut up wondering why we couldn’t bring that into the home. She's spent years exploring how to give robots social skills. At MIT, Breazeal’s team built Kismet, a primitive robot with doe eyes and exaggerated lips that had the cognitive function of a pre-verbal child. They then built Leonardo, a much more aware, Gremlin like thing, with soft gestures that could melt a grown man’s heart. Over the years, Breazeal worked out that when given human like features and gestures, we relate to robots in much of the same way we do other people. The more mobility and expression robots have, the more engagement we feel.

So it’s no real surprise that Breazeal’s Jibo project has taken in close to a million dollars in five days. She ‘gets’ robots.

Jibo has a round ‘head’ on a short body, with a flat face that is used as both a screen and primary interaction point. It uses sophisticated facial tracking techniques so it can be used as a camera, or teleconference device. It can alert you to incoming messages, or be used as interactive learning device. As Breazeal explains to me, it has the computing power of a “very high end tablet.” It comes with a set of skills, she says, to help it partner with us to get the best out of it, the collected special sauce of her many years of research into social robotics.

Most importantly, it’s not creepy. Jibo looks a lot like the lamp from the Pixar logo. “It’s anthropomorphic, but not trying to push too hard,” Breazeal says. “It’s humanized and relatable while not trying to replace people.”

We’re primed for a big leap in social robotics, Breazeal says. She’s had the knowledge for a long time about how to make robots more socially aware, but the technology has just evolved to the point where it can be done at a consumer price point. Holding a smartphone in her hand, she realized that all of this work was possible on a whole new scale. For $499, Indiegogo backers can get a robot that’ll ship next Christmas. It’s expensive, but again, she wants you thinking about the cost of an iPad before you moan about price. Jibo is a tablet you can hang out with.

Breazeal thinks that the Jibo -- and the notion of social robotics in general -- has the capacity to personalize our technological progress. Some home automation engineers drool over an Iron Man-like future with the home performing tasks for you and some unseen force talking back.

Jibo exists on a different paradigm. “People don’t want a home to feel like the Starship Enterprise,” Breazeal says.

Jibo still needs to stick the landing and the company has given itself 17 months from here to get the product perfect and out to market. There needs to be a real value proposition for social robots to take off. There are 10 million Roombas in America, Breazeal adds. People love robots. But as Siri has shown, the difference between something working at 90 percent and 100 percent, is the difference between a five minute curiosity and a groundbreaking new technology.

Breazeal wants people to start thinking about technology that complements us, that frees up our hands and minds to engage in the actual world around us. With Jibo, she’s now able to actually be in photos next to her kids. “It helps you be in reality, to support that human experience,” she says.

For anyone who like Breazeal dined on a diet of Star Wars and Jetsons episodes as a child, it’s hard not to want her to succeed.

Whether Breazeal is the “Steve Jobs of robots” as one writer decreed last week, or not, it’s too rare to see someone thinking about technology on the axis of how it works with actual human existence, rather than celebrating gadgets for the sake of it.