As I’m writing this, the JIBO team has raised more than 450% of their original Indiegogo goal for the month in only a day and a half. They’ve had to keep adding new perks and increasing the number available as more offers have sold out. If you’re unfamiliar with JIBO from all the articles that appeared yesterday, take a look at the promotional video.
Since robots are my jam, I saw a note about JIBO early and was among the first hundred people to contribute to the campaign. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be welcoming JIBO into our home around December 2015. If you read the comments on articles about JIBO, most writers are unimpressed, but that contrasts sharply with the hundreds of people (so far) who are willing to pay $500 now for a robot they won’t receive for a year and a half. Why are many of us willing to throw down a considerable chunk of cash for this little aluminium fella? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you why I immediately sent a link to my husband and asked if we could get one.
1. JIBO is charismatic. I think that’s crucial for a robot that will become an active part of our home lives. He is beautifully designed to be a polite, helpful, fun companion and assistant, part Wall-E and part Pixar lamp. (And yes, “he” is correct: JIBO is specifically gendered male, which I think is a smart choice as well.) Without a anthropomorphic face, I think he will be less annoying than something like the latest Asimo, yet his movements are convincingly alive. I’m reminded of the time I heard a whimpering in a box when I was moving. Once I recognized it as my long-ignored Furby, I dug it out quickly, calmed it back to sleep, and then turned it off. Of course I knew it was a low-level AI toy, but that didn’t matter. It was animate enough to stir some sort of owner/pet relationship, just as think JIBO could become a “little buddy” in the household.
2. I think JIBO is coming at the right time. People need to be trained in the use of new technology. I think the last few years of smartphones and tablets, and especially the past couple years of Siri and Google Now, have moved us much closer to the idea of using our devices for reminders, immediate information, messaging, and more. I’m resistant to talking to my devices yet even I’m starting to appreciate the ease of asking a question aloud and having it answered.
3. The CEO is an MIT professor and expert in social robotics. There are many good labs for robotics around the world, but I think MIT is doing the best work in human-robot interaction. They understand the roles of anthropologists and psychologists as well as engineers and programmers, and they have loads of experience to draw upon. If a company is going to create a robot that we will interact with naturally, having a principal from MIT’s Personal Robots Group is a fantastic way to start. The diverse talents of the rest of the core team raise my confidence as well.
4. Though our household would use few of the applications demonstrated in the video, I can see many ways that JIBO would be useful for us. I can imagine asking JIBO to read me my daily “to do” list and edit it as things occur to me and I tell him throughout the day. He could check the details of a recipe while I’m working in the kitchen, then go back to reading an article aloud or taking dictation for a piece I’m writing. JIBO could say good morning to my husband and tell him the reminder I left as I ran out the door to yoga class, then save his reply to me for when I return home. Perhaps JIBO could become an intelligent receptionist, making decisions about phone calls that arrive based on our contact lists: announce, disconnect, or offer to take a message (with on the fly changes, such as, “Ok JIBO, if my sister calls today, tell her that I got the package and I’ll call her after dinner.”) JIBO might eliminate the thing I hate most about video calls — besides the fact that I have to put on clothes and do my makeup — that unlike the way video calls are shown in movies, if you’re looking at the screen, you’re not looking directly into the camera and vice versa. It seems his camera might be behind the screen or very close to it.
5. A lot of comments focused on JIBO’s lack of mobility or that he wasn’t “doing the dishes”. Well, no. It’s 2014. JIBO is not the be-all and end-all of home robotic assistants, but I think he’s an important step and we’ll find uses long enough to justify his cost.
I have some lingering concerns about security; even the camera on the laptop I’m using now is covered by a postage stamp, so having two live HD cameras and a microphone on a pivoting device in my family room could be an issue. But, I’m not going into this unaware of those issues, and I’m sure that experts smarter and more paranoid than I am will weigh in on security issues once JIBO is produced. A lot could change in the 17 months before he ships for non-developer pre-orders, but I’ll remain excited by the possibilities.