14:00 16 July 2014 by Hal Hodson
Video: A robotic home companion
It doesn’t just recognise you – it can field your phone calls and chat to you at dinner
IN SUITE 712 of the Eventi Hotel, high above the sticky June bustle of Midtown Manhattan, New York, one of the world’s most advanced consumer robots awaits command.
“Wake up, Jibo,” says Cynthia Breazeal, his creator. The robot’s round head shakes awake. He lets out a tinkling noise, then a yawn. Jibo’s two-part body twists and stretches and his face, with a single digital eye, switches on and turns to look at us. He looks like a Pixar character come to life.
Jibo is the first robot designed to be used by the whole family. He’s not a niche robot with a single purpose, like a Roomba, nor is he a toy. Available for $499 through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that starts this week, Jibo is designed to tap into the social fabric of a household and help out. The first model, which will ship in 2015, will perform simple tasks like taking voice reminders, fielding phone calls and messages – connecting to the family’s phones through Wi-Fi. He will also act as the heart of the home connecting to iPads, TVs and games consoles. More complex skills include automatically identifying the faces in a room and taking pictures on request and reading a story to a child.
Breazeal chats casually to the robot: “How are you doing, Jibo?”
“I’m great, thanks for asking,” he says, cocking his head slightly as his digital eye curves into a grin. Jibo explains all the different things he can do, after a quick dance to Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song.
“I would say this is the first social, personal robot,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Jibo’s body language and expressions are designed to convey emotional states in the same way humans do, while his sensors and programming are tuned to our presence. Jibo knows when someone enters a room, and can identify who it is if he can see their face or hear their voice. The idea is that Jibo’s social skills help him to fit seamlessly into the household.
Jibo’s body and head movements are complex and smooth enough to convey convincing human-like body language but he cannot move around. For that, he relies on the humans in the household to pick him up – he weighs a mere 2.7 kilos – and move him from place to place. Jibo charges up via wireless pads plugged in around the house, or he can run on batteries for about 30 minutes away from a power source. When he joins the family at the dinner table, for instance.
Jibo turns to face whoever is talking, so an absent family member can use him to video chat as the rest of the family sit around the table. “With Jibo, you feel like you’re really part of the group dynamic,” says Breazeal.
“I think that’s enormous, I love it,” says Ken Goldberg, a roboticist from the University of California in Berkeley. Goldberg works on robots that can move around their environment and manipulate it, more in line with the traditional notion of the home robot. But such tasks are difficult to perfect: the dream of the robot butler is a long way off. “Right now, the most state-of-the-art robot still takes a good 20 minutes to fold a small towel,” Goldberg says.
Breazeal’s research at the MIT Media Lab, along with that of Bilge Mutlu at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has shown how important it is for robot-human communication that robots can express emotion. “The ability to turn your head around and pay attention to something else has been taken for granted, but it’s huge,” says Mutlu.
Breazeal is also opening Jibo up to developers as a platform on which to build new kinds of apps, such as ones that let the robot place takeaway orders for “the usual” on request, or that control the lighting and heating in a home, or even keep an eye on activity patterns to make sure that senior household members are moving enough.
But socially aware robots raise new ethical questions. Would it be appropriate, for instance, for Jibo to announce that the senior family member he has been watching has fallen down and cannot get up? “We’re going to have a really interesting dilemma about when a robot can violate privacy to save a life,” Nourbakhsh says.
“The big deal with this is its optimisation for sociality,” says Nourbakhsh. “For the first time in history, we humans are going to have complex interactions with machines.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “The first family robot”