Jibo is a social robot. He has two high-resolution cameras, and should be able to recognize you amid a gaggle of people. Jibo is smarter than a smartphone, and crammed with artificial intelligence algorithms. He can learn your preferences, and adapt to them, like a well-trained dog.
And yes, he’s a “he,” not an “it.”
His inventor, Cynthia Breazeal, chose to give the robot a male, adolescent, eager personality – though not a personality that’s so humanoid that people will forget Jibo’s a machine.
Breazeal is a superstar engineer at MIT, and a pioneer in the field of social robots. She has founded a company that plans to market Jibo in coming months as a kind of appliance with personality. Jibo is not much bigger than a toaster, but he’s a lot more talkative.
The factory should start shipping early in 2016, Breazeal said. The price isn’t final but likely will be less than $1,000.
Is this technology out of control? Breazeal has a somewhat surprising answer for someone who is a professional technologist. She says we’re already overly beholden to our gadgets. She thinks a social robot will actually be liberating. Jibo, she said, can help us overcome our screen addictions.
“We’re stuck in a rut. It’s like screens, screens, screens,” she says. “There’s more to life than flat screens. There’s more to life than information. What we want is technology that enriches our lives, that serves us.”
She describes how Jibo lets you lift your eyes from your screen and interact with others in the room – including the robot.
“It really keeps you in the physical, real, social world. So that the way you can have a group conversation, look to one person, look to another, and feel like you’re all included,” she said. “It supports a more natural, physically present, face-to-face interaction.”
She says of her robot, “It’s a warmer experience. Jibo’s designed to be this character. He’s not this cold, kind of pure information-based persona.”
Breazeal doesn’t have to wander very far at MIT to hear a skeptical take on social robots. One of her former collaborators is MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”
In the 1980s, Turkle was very much a technophile, having written an influential book, “The Second Self,” on the rise of personal computers. But she soured on digital technology in the following decades, growing concerned that digital devices can be addictive, distracting and in some ways dehumanizing. She told The Post that her change in thinking was triggered by always-online mobile devices, such as smartphones, and by her research studying children interacting with social robots.
She fears that people will buy robots to take care of children and the elderly – caregiver roles that real humans ought to fill. She argues that our gadgets not only keep us permanently distracted, but erode personal relationships and impair human empathy.
“These are robots that pretend they love you, they pretend they have a life, they pretend they have friendship – this is a pretend relationship, and pretend empathy. For kids, it’s toxic, and it can only get us into trouble,” Turkle said.
Jibo doesn’t come programmed with I-love-you sentiments, but it can be customized in myriad ways. It’s a platform, like a smartphone, that is open-ended and ready to be accessorized. Programmers can create apps for Jibo and other social robots.
Turkle said she recognizes that people really like the new digital technologies.
“People are using it because they love it. They’re not using it because they hate it. They’re pulling out this phone in the middle of a party because they want to,” Turkle says.
“It’s not about giving up our technology, it’s about using it more mindfully and with greater intention, and understanding our vulnerability,” Turkle says. “Nobody’s talking about giving up phones. This is not going to happen.”
Breazeal said she understands Turkle’s concerns.
“We don’t want any technology to harm or marginalize our human connections and interactions. Humans need humans. People need people to truly thrive and flourish,” Breazeal said. “We’re playing on the same team in the big picture. We want people to thrive with technologies.”