Innovation
6:19 pm
Wed July 23, 2014

The $500 'Family' Robot

For a shade less than $500, you can own one of the world's first family robots: Jibo. 

This is a Jibo
This is a Jibo
Credit Jibo Indiegogo campaign

Although it may be more Jetsons than Star Wars, it's captured the attention of the academic-technology-and-finance complex. The debate is intense among those who favor (or oppose) using robots to help care for our kids as well as aging parents. 

A little over a foot tall, Jibo’s round head sits and swivels on a stout, cone-shaped base. And upon activation, Jibo warmly greets you. Although it’s still in the development phase, Jibo founder and CEO Cynthia Breazeal says he’ll have a pretty impressive skillset.

“It’s like a helpful partner rather than a tool. So you can offload some things to Jibo and Jibo’s autonomy makes its easier,” said Breazeal, who has spent decades researching and developing social robots at MIT’s Media Lab.

Here to order takeout. And nurse you back to health.

Breazeal designed Jibo to help today’s overtaxed families stay connected, whether it’s communicating with everyone’s smartphones, serving as a telepresence portal for that family member who lives far away—even telling stories to your kids.

"Jibo is not just a tool you use. Social robots are partners that do things on your behalf. They play a role for you.” Breazeal said.

Jibo is still in development but once it’s released to consumers next year, Breazeal says it will also be able to take pictures, serve as a media platform, and pass messages on to family members. Of course, Apple’s SIRI already does that but Breazeal says that’s just the beginning – envisioning a future where Jibo takes on more responsibilities in institutions that are strapped for resources.

Whether it’s in a school or whether it’s in a hospital, whether you’re talking about aging or eldercare,” Breazeal said. “And so the ability for our technology-- for the first time to step up and meet that ability to support high-touch engagement, this is a huge thing.”

It appears a lot of people agree. This week Jibo broke $1 million on Indiegogo-- just six days since they launched their crowd-funding campaign. Their open developer kit also means people can create apps around Jibo, which Breazeal says will elevate the realm of the robot’s capabilities.

A substitute for mom?

MIT psychology professor Sherry Turkle cautions that we should pause before getting too excited about adopting a family robot.

“Why we would want to insert into the lives of our families an object that unlike the fathers and the mothers and the kids in the family unit is offering up something pretend?”

Turkle, who is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, says there is danger in creating an environment where kids interact with something that pretends to care.

We have to ask ourselves very hard questions about what is the good that we think is going to come to our families by having these objects be our children’s best friends and by having these objects be the ones that our seniors will be telling the stories of their life to?” Turkle said. “Because these objects don’t care, don’t love, don’t give a damn, and don’t understand.”

Breazeal insists that it isn’t designed to substitute mom or dad. She even says she and Turkle are coming at this from the same place.

Jibo’s not trying to do them for you. Families want to do these things for you. Jibo is there to support you so that I can stay engaged in my life and the things I need to do rather than having technology pull me from my life in order to use the technology and then get back to my life,” Breazeal said. “It’s a huge, different role of technology in our lives that I absolutely do not see as yet another device.

As to whether or not users will treat Jibo as just that— we’ll have to wait a year to find out. In the meantime, we have this and this to keep us entertained.