Pop culture has a special love for the friendly, helpful robot — Rosie from The Jetsons, K-9 from Doctor Who, R2-D2. Back in reality, Honda’s ASIMO robot has for years been our closest real-life comparison, but let’s be honest: the thing is impressive, but creepy, an uncanny valley creation that we Westerners associate with Japanese weirdness. But in an age where Drones and other terrifying creations reveal the darker potential of robotics lurking on the horizon, former MIT professor Cynthia Breazeal’s new start up hints that the friendly helper robot isn’t doomed.
Breazeal’s JIBO is a personal helper that has received over a million dollars in funding in the last few days. But before you get overly excited, let’s clear up the disappointment right away: JIBO isn’t a mobile humanoid like ASIMO or Rosie. It weighs approximately six pounds and sports a three-axis motor system, wireless connectivity, and two high resolution cameras that can track faces. Based on the demo video, it’s hard not to view Jibo as Siri reborn, a cross between a vase and Eve from WALL-E; it’s more HAL in its capabilities, minus the murderous impulses, than K-9 from Doctor Who.
JIBO does seem to make life vaguely easier for humans. The demo video on its Indiegogo page shows it connecting a young man with his family during Thanksgiving via a Skype-esque video chat program — the kicker here being that JIBO moves its camera to look directly at certain people. It can also act like a personal paparazzi, autonomously taking shots of what’s happening, making self-timer photos a thing of the past. JIBO can even connect to your home, turning on lights when you walk through the door. Like Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, it can naturally remind you of important dates or appointments too, taking things a step further by relaying messages back to the correct person based on facial recognition.
Based on the demo video, it’s hard not to view Jibo as Siri reborn, a cross between a vase and Eve from WALL-E; it’s more HAL in its capabilities, minus the murderous impulses, than K-9 from Doctor Who.
Practically speaking, JIBO really just centralizes a lot of what your smartphone and other smart accessories can do together in one hands-free package. But you still need to lug it into the next room with you and you can’t take it with you on your way to run errands or go to work (unless you want to look like a nut). The appeal of dropping $500 for the chance to own a JIBO by as early as 2015 in this case stems from simulated sentience. JIBO talks and responds to you like a real human being. It’s meant to feel natural. Like C3PO minus the blinged-out bodywork, JIBO serves as interpreter between humanity and their growing cloud of things.
Maybe that is what some people want, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at least at first, having a conversation with an inanimate object is going to be a jarring experience. Do people really want a device that will bug them with updates like a real person would? We already get irritated when we hear our iPhone buzz into life with an impending announcement or message. What value is there in adding personality to it? Even the old lady pounding out dough in the promo video seemed pissed when JIBO interrupted her baking.
What JIBO really has going for it is an open platform, meaning its skills and applications have the potential to grow. Will that make it the next great personal device? It’s possible. Only time can tell, but as it stands now JIBO’s capabilities aren’t game changing. Adding personality to what your smartphone can already do isn’t a step forward on the road to the future of robotics, it’s merely a side journey.