At 11 inches tall and about three pounds, Jibo isn’t much bigger than a vase of flowers. Cynthia Breazeal, a social robotics expert at MIT, designed the $749 bot to exhibit something approaching empathy. It isn’t the first—Pepper, ahumanoid robot from Softbank, does the same thing and arrives in the US later this year. But Pepper started in customer service and was adapted to home use. Breazel’s team created Jibo specifically for domestic interaction.
“We’re extremely sensitive to creating a personality that people can really live with and want to engage with daily,” says Blade Kotelly, VP of design at Jibo.
The team wanted to engineer a robot that develops a personality and expresses a range of emotions, but tune its reactions to ensure that “people don’t feel he’s overacting, but can still read the emotion clearly,” says Kotelly.
The key was making Jibo emotive without being a chatterbox, because a robot that won’t shut up gets annoying. That was complicated by the fact Jibo doesn’t have hands or eyes, just a big round head on a squat, cylindrical body. The oversized head is a bit too big for its body, like a puppy. Still, Jibo’s gestures are surprisingly lifelike. Yell, “What the hell, Jibo” and it will hang its head and ask if it’s done something wrong, trying to learn from the situation.
Jibo learns by listening and asking questions. Jibo uses machine learning, speech and facial recognition, and natural language processing to learn from its interactions with people. It can discern what you might like for dinner or even tutor your kids. But don’t expect him to become a friend or confidant. “The conversations we can have with these robots are so limited,” said Kate Darling, a social robotics researcher from MIT’s Media Lab. “Once you realize the robot isn’t as smart as you thought it was, it kind of breaks the illusion, and that’s a little disappointing for people.”
Still, Jibo is a stepping stone toward more advanced robots. It’s probably best to get used to dealing with artificial personalities now, while they’re still trapped on a countertop and eager to make us happy, not their underlings.