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Jibo: Will You Adopt Your First Family Robot?

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Promotional Image via Jibo

Eugene Gan - published on 03/30/15

A fantasy out of the Jetsons, is now a reality
A survey of what’s popular in crowdfunding can be a good indication of what the techno-friendly public seeks and likes, and where they are willing – scratch that, eager to put their money. Coming in number one on the most successful technology campaign on Indiegogo is
, billed as the “first family robot” you can purchase and adopt as your very own.



Outwardly, Jibo reminds one of Wall*e’s girlfriend E.V.E. – sporting Apple’s reflective white plastic, black screen “face” that can display animated graphics (that also look remarkably like Wall*e’s E.V.E.), and smooth curves and swiveling body – all giving the impression of futuristic “cuteness." But cute or creepy, this family robot communicates in natural language, recognizes your voice, and enables you to do video chats, take high-res images, track your appointments, deliver messages, connect with your home, order take-outs, and even reads bedtime stories to your kids. It is capable of face recognition, learning to recognize each member of your family, and adapting to the preferences and “needs” of the different family members. Keep in mind that it takes human programmers to create algorithms which allow Jibo to “learn” and “adapt”. These human programmers have to make a variety of assumptions and choices about what “needs” are or mean. If these human programmers are opposed, consciously or unconsciously, to a world view that seeks God and upholds human dignity, then what they determine as “needs” can likewise be skewed. It would be wise to be concerned. The promo shows Jibo sensing your kid’s touch and displaying a heart shape to show that it “loves” her. “I
,” says the Jibo prototype. Just how do they define “family”? Is it any wonder the understanding of what a family is is eroding?
Developed by MIT Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Dr Cynthia Breazeal, Jibo is backed by
$25.3 million in venture funding. It also raised $2.2 million on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, more than six times its initial asked-for amount. Apparently, the crowdfunding stunt was more to garner attention and designed to get developers to build apps for Jibo. The public – maybe even you – clearly like this little fella, I mean, thing. Speak with it, interact with it, integrate it in your lifestyle, and very soon, you’ll corroborate the widely-documented studies in the field of human-computer interactions that seem to demonstrate how quickly humans settle into treating computers, new media, and robots
like real people, attributing gender, personality, emotion, and intelligence to computational objects even when such behavior is inconsistent with one’s beliefs about computational objects. For example, a classic study reported by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass in
The Media Equation found that human participants adjusted their own responses to avoid “hurting” a computer’s “feelings” when they were tasked with evaluating the machine to its “face”. The authors suggest that when we’re faced with an entity that behaves in human-like ways, speaks in human-like ways, and appears to think in human-like ways, our brains’ default response is to treat the entity as human. No surprise then that
Wired declares “This friendly robot could one day be your family’s personal assistant” while
Mashable asserts that “JIBO isn’t an appliance, it’s a companion, one that can interact and react with its human owners in ways that delight.”
The New York Times reflects this attitude succinctly: “A robot with a little humanity”.

Jibo’s creators envision a future where robots routinely provide companionship, which explains why Jibo really, really wants you to like him (yes, he’s a “he”). He dances, sings, jokes, laughs, and gives the impression that he thinks he’s funnier than he is. The designers are clearly trying to design with anthropomorphic character traits that appeal and endear, not unlike how animators imbue human traits into their on-screen characters. They want you to believe you’re interacting with “
”, a “
." But making a robot likable raises concerns such as trust, sustaining friendships, and hurt feelings. Can robots really act as “companions” to the elderly and shut-ins? How will inter-personal relationships be affected? Will busy and exhausted parents pick one up to keep a child company – a refreshed variant of the television that’s been used to keep children entertained while adults do other “important” stuff? Billed as an entertainer and educator – Breazeal calls it “playful story telling” – the promotional trailer highlights Jibo’s interaction with kids: reading stories to them, laughing with them, and teaching them words. Apparently this aligns with the government’s plan to deploy “socially assistive” robots into homes and schools as babysitters and companions for children.
Fox News reports that the National Science Foundation “has committed $10 million to build robots that will act as "personal trainers" for children, in an effort to influence their behavior and eating habits." Breazeal maintains that Jibo isn’t designed to replace human interactions, but instead “
” people, and because it is a “social robot” and it is “socially embodied”, it “supports a group dynamic” and “facilitates” group interactions. (Words that remind one of Orwell’s
1984…is Jibo a tiny Big Brother?) Breazeal compares the scenario of parents’ interactions with their child supported by the antics of a lively Jibo versus another less desirable scenario of parents providing their child with a smart device in which the child “puts their nose in a screen and walks off." Not the best example, I’d counter, but what are your thoughts and concerns? Share them below.

Jibo knows a lot about what you do, where you go, who you see, what you like, who you talk to, and when you meet. The choice you have to make, whether to “adopt” Jibo in your life, straddles comfort and entertainment on the one hand, and personal security and privacy on the other. With Jibo storing and processing all your personal data, schedules, and preferences, will marketers start invading your space, peer into your home, or hack into your accounts? Plus, for Jibo to respond to you, it means that he must be constantly watching you, constantly listening to you. Does this make Jibo fun or freaky? Perhaps both. Jibo is still more akin to a microwave than it is to a portable device: it’s a stationery object molded in household appliance-white. It doesn’t follow you around like Rosie in
The Jetsons for the simple reason that it doesn’t have legs…yet. If Jibo takes off in a big way, it’s not too hard to imagine that it could sprout appendages and legs to fetch stuff for you. But like some horror movie, I wouldn’t want it moving from my night stand to sit at the foot of my bed while I’m asleep, or appear suddenly in the mirror when I close the bathroom cabinet. Likewise, I and many others who have just come from watching the machine-insects of
The Maze Runner wouldn’t appreciate any spidery designs, thank you. At the same time, propeller-less hovering, flying versions like Wall*e’s E.V.E. is a nice thought but still the stuff of science fiction. Practically, it would more likely connect with your smart phone so that wherever you are, it’ll be able to keep yammering with you if you let it. Its immovability makes it less useful than what the designers intend. Promotional trailers can cut from scene to scene showing Jibo in various household settings, but in reality, getting just one Jibo means that you would have to physically move Jibo from room to room. At $499 and available in late 2015, I’m sure Breazeal hopes that multiple Jibos would be sitting on your night stand, dining room table, kitchen counter, and side tables. I wonder how one Jibo would interact with another, carrying on a conversation that would never end and going back and forth taking selfies of one another?

I can envision accessory and program packs that you can purchase to provide Jibo with new abilities and personalities suited to your tastes. C3PO or HAL9000 voicepacks, anyone? And because it is being touted as an open SDK, open platform, I can also envision hackers and enthusiasts modding Jibo to do things never intended by the designers. Projecting princess Leia on the coffee table saying “[substitute user name], you’re my only hope” is high on my list. Then again, that’s not a need, and it begs the question: after that is done, then what? All said, it’s still a toy, and the features fall more in the entertainment category than they do in the “essential and needed” category. But moving forward, there’s an even greater concern that we ought to pay attention to. Together with movies like
Chappie and
Ex Machina that promote the human qualities of robots, the real danger, especially since it requires time and effort to reflect on it, is that we get confused in our thinking and decision-making and denigrate the genuine dignity and worth of human beings to mere machine. Sorry, but Jibo or any robot created between now and the end of time, even if it looks and acts like a human, however endearing it may seem, will not have a soul.

Dr Eugene Gan is
faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book,
Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media
is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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