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Jibo: Will You Adopt Your First Family Robot?


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
’m hoping to be part of my very own family someday soon
,” 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 “
someone rather than a something
”, a “
helpful partner rather than a tool that you use
." 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 “
support and empower
” 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.

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