Social robots. That's pretty much all Dr. Cynthia Breazeal has thought about for the past 20 years. Not so much how to build a better robot, but how to build one that could work and live alongside humans. It sounds like a simple concept, but it’s not; perhaps that is why it has taken her all these years to finally deliver a consumer product: Jibo, the world’s first family robot.
Jibo is a desktop robot making its debut on Indiegogo on Wednesday. At first glance, Jibo looks like a mashup between a desk lamp and Wall-E’s “EV.” It has a round base that plugs into a standard AC outlet, a slightly cone-shaped midsection and a round head with a flat front that sits on top of it. That dark, round face features a 5.7-inch screen. The design is attractive, but not necessarily compelling — that is, until Jibo comes to life.
“Jibo, please introduce yourself,” Dr. Breazeal says, raising her voice only slightly. The transformation is startling. Jibo’s face lights up and its 11.5-inch body swivels around to face her. Jibo’s screen shows a large “blinking” ball (the blink is like the closing of an eye), as it responds, “Hi, my name is Jibo.”
The robot then dances to a short tune, moving with an almost startling suppleness.The robot then dances to a short tune, moving with an almost startling suppleness. Jibo’s eye then changes to an image of a large camera lens, as it explains how it can capture and share special moments while Jibo’s body reorients itself to face Breazeal. Then it starts to tell a story and the screen changes again into images for a tale about the three little pigs. Jibo doesn’t not only reads the story in its friendly, male voice, but also uses its body to act it out.
Soon, I was waking up Jibo and putting it to sleep with my own voice commands (Jibo rotates and puts its “head” down so it’s not constantly awake and watching). It was fun, but I was hungry for more.
It’s a prototype that doesn't have all the planned functionality shown in the Jibo promotional video, which launched with the Indiegogo campaign, but Breazeal’s intention is clear: Jibo isn't an appliance, it’s a companion, one that can interact and react with its human owners in ways that delight instead of disturb. Jibo “supports the human experience, but does not try to be human.”
Inside Jibo and social robots
While Jibo is not a mobile robot, it has, Breazeal explained, benefited greatly from the mobile revolution. Built by a 20-member team with off-the-shelf mobile components, Jibo will cost $499 (in the Indiegogo campaign) and $599 for the developer edition (with SDK).
The relatively consumer-friendly price point comes courtesy of using things like a mobile CPU and a standard 5.7-inch phablet display, which, of course, provides the added benefit of a touch screen. As you might expect, it can take video and pictures (on your command, of course), but also tracks faces so its “face” can look up at yours. It can even make sure all faces in the room are in focus before it grabs a group photo.
There are some more esoteric parts in Jibo like the touch sensors on its head (“What I found in my research with robots, is that people do communicate with touch,” Breazeal said), color stereoscopic cameras and a stereo microphone array (Jibo hears and knows where the sound is coming from), but perhaps none more so than the three actuators (or motors) featuring high-resolution encoders and velocity control that give Jibo its signature moves, including the ability to rotate its head a full 360 degrees. Put simply, this robot does not move like a robot; it’s fluid and, in fact, animated. That’s not an accident.
Many of Jibo’s responses are, essentially, animated or choreographed by Fardad Faridi, an animatronics expert whose been working with Breazeal at the MIT Media Lab for years. “If there’s one man on the planet who understands how you animate atoms and not just bits, it’s Fardad,” Breazeal said. “He’s a brilliant animator and that’s a key part of the Jibo experience.”
In the video, Jibo interacts at a dinner table like it’s one of the guests, switching between displaying the face of a distant family member communicating via a telepresence app (which will let you tap faces on it and make Jibo turn its head toward them) and automatically swiveling to pay attention to someone else speaking nearby it. It moves, in other words, as one might expect a living thing to.
Breazeal calls this “attuned reciprocity” It’s the idea of not only paying attention to visual cues, but responding in a reciprocal or mutual way. It’s something humans do all the time. Teaching robots to do this is another matter, but for Breazeal, it’s the key. She called it “a big ‘aha!’ moment in robotics technology. There is, she said, “this idea of transparency through social cues.” This allows people to predict what others will do next. Interaction is not just people talking at each other; “it’s a dance.”
Jibo skirts way, way around the uncanny valley — there’s little in it that could be confused for a human.Jibo skirts way, way around the uncanny valley — there’s little in it that could be confused for a human.“It’s a robot, so let’s celebrate the fact it’s a robot,” said Breazeal as she explained the design decisions behind Jibo. Yet it can act in human ways that are compelling.
For instance, at one point during my interview, Breazeal mentioned Jibo’s name and the robot woke up from a slumber, started blinking its one large orb-like eye and making little sounds. It hears its name and responded like a person would, but did not startle with some sort of unanticipated command response.
It had, in other words, a very social reaction, one that we understood and, to some extent, expected.
“Autonomous robots sends these signals of what psychology calls animacy,” said Breazeal. “In the world of entities, our minds have different ways, different psychology when you think of things that are governed by having states of mind and things that are governed by the laws of physics.”
The way a thing moves actually triggers something in our mind that makes us perceive it as living. It’s the difference between a person climbing up a hill, against the force of gravity, and a ball that’s rolling down a hill because gravity is pulling it.
Understand that this is how people tell the difference between sentient beings and objects means asking yourself how to create a social robot that, in essence, doesn’t break these rules. “How does a robot reveal its internal states in a way that we intuitively understand?” said Breazeal.
As Breazeal explains the science behind Jibo, she becomes increasingly animated. I’ve seen her this way before, when she joined me for a robotics panel in 2004.
Back then she was still an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab working on a social robot that now appears to presage Jibo. Called Leonardo and co-designed by the late special effects master Stan Winston, it looked like “Mogwai” from the 1980s film Gremlins.
Like Jibo, Leonardo was a social robot (its predecessor, Kismet, was considered the real breakthrough in social robotics), though he lived only in MIT’s Media lab and we only saw it on video. The robot had large eyes and reacted and responded to human social cues. Unlike Jibo, it appeared to learn new skills on the fly.
Breazeal wasn’t, in 2004, talking about consumer robots, she simply wanted to learn how humans and robotics could interact. And though we talked on and off throughout the years, there was little indication that she would follow in the footsteps of fellow MIT alum and iRobot CEO Colin Angle who brought us the Roomba or her mentor Rodney Brooks, who launched Rethink Robotics Baxter.
So Jibo comes as a welcome surprise, and while it’s more purely consumer and interactive than iRobot’s Roomba and Rethink’s Baxter, Jibo will, as “the first social robotics platform” be, like those other robots, connected, extensible and ever-changing.
A robot platform
Jibo is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi (Bluetooth hardware is included, but not yet being used) and will benefit from a cloud-based update system. The SDK will allow third parties to build new tools that work with Jibo and utilize some of its scripts to build custom interactions.
Jibo’s extensibility ties directly back to the Indiegogo campaign, which Breazeal insists is not so much about raising money to make Jibo possible (“We have backers”), but to build the developer and user community and inspire people to build apps for Jibo. They’re also doing a “self-starter” campaign on MyJibo.com. Both will result in a limited run output of the robot. “We want to engage our community with people who want to make Jibo part of their lives [and] with people who want to develop for Jibo early enough in our development cycle that we can really engage them and get their input and feedback.” said Breazeal.
For a first-of-its-kind platform like this, Breazeal expects what she calls “fast followers,” but “if you can really get that awesome developer community, you’re gonna win.”
Getting to know Jibo
The future Jibo, which was not functional during our demo, will be smaller and lighter than the prototype. It will also be all white. While Breazeal joked that she would be happy to see people buy multiple robots, but the use case will likely be that they buy multiple charging bases and then move Jibo from room-to-room. It does have on-board batteries and can operate for about 30 minutes on DC power.
When you bring Jibo home, it will guide you through getting it on your Wi-Fi network and will do everything it can to get to know you, starting by registering your face and voice, asking you a few questions and explaining what it can do for you.
Depending on how attached you become top Jibo, you may not want to leave it behind when you walk out your front door. For that, Breazeal says they’ll have iOS and Android apps so you can “have Jibo with you” wherever you go. Those apps will also let you communicate through connected Jibo’s via voice and messaging.
Breazeal’s video envisions a version that can greet you when you arrive home, check and read your Gmail to you, ask you if you want dinner, order pizza and even turn on the lights when you walk in the door. “We know tech has to step in and empower us in the home,” said Breazeal.
Jibo’s functionality, though, will be somewhat limited when it launches next year (development versions arrive in Q3, 2015). There is, she noted, a release schedule for some of these skills, which will be built on top of the core “social robot” platform. Others, however, like the robot ordering pizza, are really designed to excite the developer community, “Imagine what Jibo would be like to be the new humanized interface of the connected home.”
The adorable bot may not be alone in the world of human-friendly home robots. Its unveiling comes just months after Softbank introduced Pepper, the emotional robot. There are, of course, some stark differences. Pepper is over 3 feet all, while Jibo is just under a foot and weighs just 6 pounds. Where Jibo is an armless desk or table-bound robot, Pepper has arms, expressive hands and can roll about on a 3-wheeled base.
Built by Alderbaran and Foxconn and bankrolled by Softbank, Pepper is expected to cost roughly $2,000, which makes it considerably more expensive than Jibo.
Each of these robots though share similar aims: To connect with people, provide companionship, care and support.
The elderly could rely on Jibo and Pepper to watch over themThe elderly could rely on Jibo and Pepper to watch over them and react if they fall ill. They’re designed to provide companionship to old and young. Both Jibo and Pepper appear to be adept story tellers.
Researchers “have found that people actually do better they have better outcomes with social robots that are physically instantiated in the social environment, than flat screens and other technologies,” said Breazeal.
There will be a growing need for robots like Jibo, said Breazeal, “as the demand of things like aging in place, chronic disease management and early childhood learning, the demand is exceeding the human institutional ability to meet that need and it’s just projected to get worse over time.”
“We know technology has to step in, we know technology has to empower us in the home,” she said.
Is Jibo that home-based technology? It’s soon soon to tell.
Tags: GADGETS, JIBO, MOBILE, ROBOT, Tech