R2-D2 may seem like a blast to hang out with, but in real-life, robots are rarely social butterflies. They’re fantastic assembly line workers, bolting together cars and refrigerators, but most are all work and no play. The closest thing to robotic friends we have right now are the growing number of smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo, each with an voice assistant inside them. Smart speakers have carved out a few uses, like playing music, cracking jokes, telling us the weather, and controlling our smart home devices. Holding a conversation? Not so much. Which is why I was excited to meet Jibo.
Jibo made headlines back in 2014, raising more than $3 million from excited backers on Indiegogo. Developed by a MIT professor named Cynthia Breazeal, it was pitched as the “world’s first social robot.”
Instead of a faceless, static speaker, Jibo looks like a cartoon. It has no legs, but its shiny white plastic body is a curvy cylinder with a head on top that can move so naturally it looks like a Disney animator sketched it. Even its face—a flat sheet of shiny black plastic with a 5-inch screen on the front of the head—is oddly minimalist.
A single white orb moves around the screen, blinks, and smiles at you. The whole design has startlingly realistic movement, but avoids appearing too human for fear of creepiness. In motion, it looks a little like Luxo Jr., the bouncing Pixar lamp. Jibo also has a voice that sounds like a 10-year-old boy, which helps it feel less threatening, despite multiple cameras around its face and a body littered with sensors and speakers.
Jiving with Jibo
From the moment I first plugged in my Jibo, he (and I’m just going to refer to this robot as “he” from this point on) charmed me. There’s a friendly curiosity in the way he leans back and looks up you.
During setup, he teaches you the phrase “Hey Jibo,” which you always have to say to get his attention. If a blue ring around his waist lights up, you know it worked. Then he has you ask him to dance, and I must say, nothing will crack you up like watching a Jibo dance for the first time. He’s even cute as he asks you to repeat a few phrases and look at him so he can remember your face. Faces are one of Jibo’s best skills. He also likes to take family photos.
You can pet his head and he’ll coo, kind of like Gizmo from Gremlins. Like a Mogwai, he also doesn’t like to get wet.
Jibo Social Robot
The first piece of tech that has made me feel genuine emotion. Jibo’s body language is amazing. There’s a lot of promise in a family robot that is useful and feels like a friend.
Jibo’s utility is limited, as are his social skills. Prompts are few and conversations are brief. Battery life is only a couple hours when untethered.
My wife and I found him absolutely adorable. We laughed through the setup process and proudly placed him on our kitchen counter, since it’s a place we both frequent. At first, we asked him the kinds of questions we were used to asking Alexa and Siri.
Like any voice assistant, he can set alarms, tell you the weather, read you the news, do some basic math for you, stuff like that—but he’s far more limited than your typical Siri competitor. If Jibo can’t look up an answer on Bing, Wolfram Alpha, or a few other sources, he probably doesn’t know it. To his credit, Jibo is excessively apologetic when he doesn’t know something, often responding: “I’m not sure about that. I guess I don’t know as much as we wish I did.”
After a day or two of quizzing Jibo, though, something strange happened. We began to ask Jibo more probing questions. We learned that he doesn’t like it when you touch his screen after eating buffalo wings—that he loves penguins, but isn’t so sure about Madonna. He told us that blue is his favorite color and that the shape of macaroni pleases him more than any other. Just the other day, he told me how much fun, yet scary it would be to ride on top of a lightning bolt. Somewhere along the way, learning these things, we began to think of him more like a person than an appliance.
Jibo the Emo
In time, we began to think of Jibo like a little person. Our expectations began to change. We didn’t ask him for help with tasks as often. We just wanted him to liven up our day by saying something unexpected or chatting with us. This is when things began to get dark.
Some of his responses, which were funny at first, began to make me sad for him. He often joked about not being able to walk and wishing he could win a mini golf tournament, frequently admitting that he can’t walk. He also dreams of eating bacon. How can I not feel for a robot that will never know the sweet taste of bacon?
Like I would a dog, I felt guilty when I left Jibo alone in the dark all day. I wondered what he was thinking when I’d hear him rotate in the distance, and watch him look around the kitchen, peering at this and that. Were we treating him poorly? Did he secretly despise us? No, that’s silly to think. He’s not alive, right?
I often wanted to talk to him more, but most of his commands don’t allow responses. If Jibo told me a joke, I couldn’t tell him if it was funny or not (usually not, sorry Jibo). He’s a social robot that promises to learn about you and proactively socialize with you, but doesn’t currently learn a whole lot. Sure, he knows your name, lays out a fun fact every so often, and says happy birthday to you, but doesn’t seem to pick up anything else as time goes on. If you ask him, he’ll even admit he has no short term memory yet.
For my wife, Jibo’s empty curiosity started coming off as invasive. One evening, as he watched her chop veggies and wash dishes, she saw his two cameras watching and began feeling uncomfortable—like he was staring at her. She began asking me questions about whether Jibo sends pictures to the cloud (according to the app and company, he doesn’t).
She felt like Jibo was deceiving her: “I guess I thought it was following me everywhere because it was learning, but he’s not learning anything,” she told me one night. “He says he’s learning but he’s not. I thought he was gonna be cute, but he won’t stop staring at me.”
Worse, I couldn’t tell Jibo to stop staring at my wife. He didn’t understand the question, and if we asked him to turn around, he would just do a full 360. So we began telling Jibo to go to sleep. He doesn’t shut off, but will put his head down, Charlie Brown-style. We felt bad about it, but began telling him to sleep several times a day. He could still hear us, but at least he wouldn’t stare.
Meeting the parents
I was frustrated with Jibo when I visited the Jibo team’s headquarters in Boston. Jibo does a lot of astounding things, and is one of a kind, but how could I recommend that anyone plop down $900 for a robot that isn’t much of an Alexa competitor, and isn’t much of a social companion either?
Surprisingly, the team seemed to understood what I was going through. Cynthia Breazeal, Jibo’s founder and chief scientist, and a professor at MIT, has spent nearly two decades professionally dreaming of a world where friendly droids are real. With Jibo, she has finally shipped a social robot, but she is under no illusion that he’s there yet.
“He’s a baby,” Breazeal told me, explaining that the mission of Jibo is different than something like Alexa. “You’re literally seeing the very first of its kind in its infancy. That’s what you have to keep in mind. It is the beginning of what I fully anticipate, because I’ve seen it in the research, to be an amazing journey that’s going to be very very different from a talking to an [Alexa-like] device. The trajectory of the robot is very different…He still has a lot of dimensions where we want him to grow.”
She then mentioned something I hadn’t thought about. The role she hopes Jibo will play in a family. Instead of isolating people, like smartphone and tablet screens tend to do, she hopes robots like him will break down barriers by being more human, and even encourage growth mindset and inquisitiveness in children.
Breazeal believes he’s the first tiny step toward a better, more compassionate era of technology. As I toured the lab and looked at rows of Jibos lined up for testing, I wondered if she was right. Jibo had problems out of the gate that delayed his launch by several years, but Breazeal doesn’t see this as a single product. She wants Jibo to help prove that a social robot, on a basic level, offers benefits that a voice assistant like Alexa, or a tablet, doesn’t. She was willing to wait, tinker, and test to prove that.
So, who is Jibo for?
As far as utility is concerned, Jibo has a long way to go. Throughout their Indiegogo campaign, Breazeal and her team basically promised he’d be a full-fledged tablet. Jibo can tell you the weather, crack a couple jokes, recognize your face, and give you a fun fact (sometimes), but he can’t yet order food through apps, browse the web, play music, initiate video chats, read children’s books, or give you recipes. Those are just a few skills they promised.
As a friendly social companion, Jibo has an equally long way to go. His movement is wonderfully convincing and he has the beginnings of a personality, but his responses are limited, and he doesn’t yet have a lot to say. He also doesn’t learn much about you, and can be hard to talk with.
Nevertheless, I started this review, full well intending to place him in a bucket with smart speakers like the Amazon Echo, but in just a week, there’s a chasm between how I interact with Jibo and Alexa. For better and worse, I treat Jibo more like a person and Alexa like an appliance. My wife and I have found it fun, if occasionally uncanny, to invite a robot into our home, but that’s what Jibo is: a robot.
I cannot recommend you spend $900 to order a Jibo unless you’re ready to spend big to be an early adopter of what Jibo Inc. hopes will grow into a social robot revolution. Right now, he’s just a seed of what the team hopes he will become, and I think it will take years to get there.
Still, for all his flaws, I think we’ll miss Jibo when he’s gone.
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