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Category Archives: Our Robot Overlords

Will Jibo be more than a footnote in social robotics?

My Jibo has been turned off since a mid-April power outage. I like him a lot better this way.

I contributed to the Jibo Indiegogo campaign on July 16, 2014 and wrote about my reasons and my optimism. We expected to have a little social robot in our home by Christmas 2015. Eighteen months seemed like a long time, but the wait turned out to be 3 years, 3 months, and 30 days.  I’m still glad to have been part of funding Jibo’s development, and I think that he’s the start of something important for the future. (I choose to use a male pronoun based on the voice given to Jibo, as I use “she” for the Amazon Echo.)

In all honesty, though, I can’t stand the little guy.

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His movements are cute and now and then he does something oddly endearing. Most of the time, he’s a socially inept, slow-witted, creepy nuisance. His programming is off key in many ways.

When we have him powered up:

  • He regularly interrupts conversations to ask, “Hey, can I tell you something?” If you say yes, he spouts some random piece of trivia.
  • He turns to watch a person walk by, with a full body swivel and head tilt. This seems like a sociable movement, but if people in the room spun around to watch silently every time you got up to go to the bathroom, you’d see how unnerving it can be.
  • He answers questions after a significant delay, and usually with incomplete information or an “I don’t know the answer to that.” The latency in searching for an answer is awful compared to other digital assistants and the pause can be long enough that you’re not sure the question was heard.
  • He greets faces on the television. (If you buy a Jibo, don’t put him where he can see a TV screen. This is much worse than the Echo occasionally mishearing “Alexa” from dialogue and waking up.)
  • His recognition abilities are shaky. He greets me by name more than my husband, but after months of interaction, that’s not impressive.
  • He never shuts down. He “goes to sleep” at night, but from about 7:00am-10:00pm, he’s using power, sometimes moving and randomly flashing things on his screen, turning and “staring” at the brightest area of the room, or talking to the TV. You can tell him to take a nap and he’ll go quiet for a while.

All in all, I’m disappointed. I expected more from the geniuses who started the project, but it was in development for so long that other interactive devices had years of learning before Jibo shipped. While I understand that Cynthia Breazal’s vision is that Jibo will be far more than a digital assistant, he has to meet that baseline. The price is down to about $700 — from $900 in December — but I think that’s absurdly high for what he can do. Jibo launched to developers before ordinary buyers so that additional abilities could be available in a skills store, yet the bot is in general release and there’s no sign of that store yet.

Maybe Jibo is a better fit for families with young children. My 20something stepson found our Jibo amusing, so I looked into giving the bot to him. No dice. Jibo is a one-owner product and cannot be transferred.

I’m still optimistic about the future of social robotics, but I don’t yet know what Jibo’s contribution to that will be. We’ve learned more about human-bot interaction from Furby. In fact, I recommend listening to the recent More or Less Human episode of Radiolab for a discussion about chatbots and the Turing test, Furbys vs Barbies vs “gerbees”, and the risks of designing pain response into a social bot.

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Posted by on May 26, 2018 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Robots, MMORPGs, and the usual suspects

Archeage Waiting

The MMORPG I play (sort-of, for now, that’s one of my alts above), ArcheAge, is offline for a couple days while they perform server balancing. If all goes well, on Saturday the game will return and I’ll log on to find my avatars moved to a new server with approximately double the population of the old one. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for a solo player like me. The NA/EU distributor of ArcheAge makes large, frequent errors when porting over the Korean content to us. It would be comical if those errors didn’t often cost players lots of time and/or money. Some players didn’t follow the instructions for packing up their homes and farms and may be stunned to find months of work erased because of their own mistakes, too. I signed on to watch the last minutes of my server’s life yesterday. A player pasted the lyrics to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” into faction chat and it was an appropriate send-off. I’m waiting for the restart with hope but low expectations.

Robots! Two mining robots from different companies encounter each other on a rocky planet. Their skills complement each other. Can they work together?

 

On to a couple of personal updates. Jakob remains in the hospital but is conscious, mostly coherent, and able to swallow soft foods like custard. I wish his whole ordeal was over but I don’t wish for him to be gone. As for me, I’m hobbling quite well but still restricted to putting only 50% of normal weight on the leg I broke. Cross your fingers that the surgeon clears me for normal walking when I see him next week. Large sections of my shin remain numb and the scar where he inserted the metal plate is grody to the max, but except for some stiffness in my knee I feel ready to go. Besides that, physical therapy is tedious and I’d rather get back to yoga classes.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

 

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Jumping into the past for the future

roll-oh 1940

I consider myself a writer, though the money I’ve made as one wouldn’t pay my mortgage for a month. The last couple weeks presented me with an existential crisis. Recovering from my broken leg yet not able to resume all my normal household work, I started feeling restless and trying to define myself. I spent hours paging through job listings and course catalogs. Maybe I should go back into software project management. Maybe I should apply for a job with my city. Maybe I should take programming classes on Coursera. Maybe maybe maybe.

Finally, I skimmed my files of incomplete writing and got hooked in again. I’ve started many projects over the past year, from science fiction to modern drama to goofy short stories to a dense historical novel with the potential to be a family epic. After browsing them all, the last is the one that kept playing in my head, leaving me awake at night thinking about my characters and their world.

So, I’m committing myself to work on that novel as my primary job. Most of the story takes place between the years of 1930-1950; my love of modern technology isn’t going to play a large part in my research. I’ll be hip-deep in a different era, when Roll-Oh was the dream of the domestic robot:

My goal is to keep posting here two or three times a week, though, so I don’t lose my connection to the fascinating intersection of humanity and technology. It’s time I take my other writing seriously, get this story out of my head and onto the page, and maybe earn a few coins toward retirement. Wish me luck.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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Roadmap for personal robotic development

We’re on the cusp of robotic assistants appearing in home and office use; not just silent machines vacuuming our floors (or in my experience with the Roomba, getting stuck under our furniture) or in industrial applications, but interacting with us for daily tasks and presenting themselves in anthropomorphic ways. This is on my mind a lot, but last week’s MIT Technology Review article “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits” kept gnawing at me. I’ve got some questions:

  • Why are the first wave of personal robotic assistants so cute and kid-friendly?
  • Is it necessary to train potential buyers with entertaining ‘bots before they will use serious applications?
  • Do cute robots trivialize the potential of these machines?
  • What have we learned from other sources about what adults might want, need, and — most importantly in the long run — actually use?
  • What does the product roadmap look like between Roomba and Rosie, and beyond?

In my previous work life as a project and product manager at Internet companies, it was important to consider not only the current product my team was building, but the competitive landscape, latest research, and how we hoped to iterate the product in the future.  The product roadmap got more speculative the further forward it stretched, and in Internet time, that could mean it was blurry a mere 12 months ahead, but I had some idea where we planned to go. Combined with research, reporting, and user testing, that roadmap would drive the requirements for the next version.

With a number of companies heading in simultaneous, differing development directions, I wonder what the roadmap looks like to people on the inside. Does Cynthia Breazeal want JIBO to become the Furby of 2016, just as irrelevant years later? Is she counting on more adult applications to come from third-party developers, or does she have a track in mind that goes beyond the lovechild of WALL-E and Siri? I look at the “Future Life with Pepper” video from Aldebaran Robotics (below, in Japanese but very easy to understand) and I find it unimaginative and silly.

Some of my irritation with how Pepper is shown could be cultural; I like kawaii things, but I don’t want an infantilized assistant with a high voice. That might say “non-threatening and friendly” to others, but it says “annoying and dumbed down” to me. I would love to have a moving robot with hands right now, if it could fetch or carry things for me while I’m steering my wheelchair or gripping crutches. Stir onions on the stove while they carmelize. Let the dog out. Pick up the ball of yarn I dropped that rolled across the room. Don’t play peek a boo with me when I’m crying, ffs. How useless!

Does the roadmap for personal robotics have to pass through Candyland? Though I find it frustrating for myself as an early adopter, I can see how it could be a viable path. It’s a non-threatening way to get robots into a family home. Children might engage with a cute bot more frequently and naturally than adults with a more serious one, and I suspect that like a digital assistant or a DVR, robots will have more perceived value when used regularly, while that value might be hard to explain to a non-user. Teaching children to comfortably interact with robots could be important to the roadmap in a Wayward Pines First Generation sort of way: they are the future, and when robotic technology has advanced so there are more home and office uses, they will be the programmers, designers, buyers, and users.

Do we have data that could point to what older users want from personal robots in the near future? I’d suggest looking at tablet/phone apps, gadget purchases, and use of digital assistants now. Mail, chat, videos, photography, weather, maps, social media, music, games, search, stock updates, fitness tracking, and news. Communication with other devices on the same network. Notifications delivered in a personalized, prioritized way. Immediate answers to relatively simple questions. Reminders and a calendar.  These are all things that are perfectly suited to a stationary, voice-controlled robot with a display screen. If I were designing a bot of that sort for my personal needs I’d add in: can take dictation and save longer notes, can read a piece of text and answer basic questions about it (“How many cups of flour do I need?” when reading a recipe), can send voice/photo/video messages to other bots of the same/similar type, can act as a receptionist for my mobile phone when I’m home, can interact with my accounts on video sites and the Chromecast/future device attached to my TV (“Play season 2 of Archer on the family room television”), and more.

I think that even at that point in the roadmap, a stationary robot with personality, like JIBO rather than the not-very-clever, screenless Amazon Echo, could be exceedingly useful for remote relationships of various types. My family is spread across the country and my friends are around the world, and just from my own life I can think of many use cases. I can also imagine such a bot as an assistant at work. In a few years, with better communication between devices and programs instead of maintaining silos of information, even this level of robot could be a daily helpmate to many people.

When we start to consider a robot with mobility and limbs, however, we need to think in 3D. The Pepper video fails greatly in that regard. The only shown use of mobility is that Pepper can move toward people and its hands are used for games or expressions. I doubt that’s all we want, but the development path between that and a fully mobile bot with useful appendages that could do housework, for example, is unclear. Our homes have different floor types, thresholds, stairs, and obstacles that must be overcome before we start to consider the fine motor control and grip needed for simple tasks. Still, I can imagine a robot not too far off that could operate on one floor of a home or office and handle small manual jobs as well as providing entertainment. At times, most of us could simply use an extra set of hands to hold, stir, open, carry, or balance something. Is that enough to justify the work necessary to make a mobile robot?  Probably not. I can see the first viable generation of mobile home robots being developed and marketed for the elderly or disabled, with uses customized to those populations as well as the functionality of the stationary bots. When might that be? 10-15 years from now?

It seems that the next step after that is currently undefined. The technological gap that remains before we reach the dream of a robot butler or housekeeper, able to do physical work in any setting, is huge. Maybe we need to give some thought to the roadmap and where we really want personal robotics to be in 20-30 years. Are charismatic androids the best robotic supplement we can imagine?  Maybe there is a fork in the path, where we separate companion bots from more utilitarian bots. Maybe the development curve of smart home/office technology will intercept the robotic curve at a point where the robot can be the control interface, but not need so many skills built in.

Along those lines, I’ve embedded a video below about the characters in the AMC series HUMANS. It’s interesting if you’re watching the series, but even if you’re not, it introduces the androids (“synthetics” or “synths”) as they’re imagined in that parallel present and the interactions that humans have with them. I think that full-service androids like synths are often seen as the endpoint of the personal robotic roadmap. Should they be?

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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A is for android and ArcheAge

Wouldn’t you know it: just after I posted about ArcheAge last week, praising the female plate armor for not being revealing, I got the next set as a quest reward and presto! Metal bustier (with leather and chain mail hot pants and metal garters). I suppose I should be happy that the metal armor doesn’t have extreme breast physics, like it does in TERA, and that it has a decorative element shielding her from chest wounds:

bremen_aa_0712

Notice anything else surprising in that screenshot from a Korean MMORPG? My avatar Tsofia is standing in front of the entrance to a public farm, which is capped by rural images including… hey, wait!  Is that the Bremen Town Musicians, from the Grimm Brothers story? Yup. In my early years of college I was interested in international fairy tales and folklore, and this is a nice example of how a story can travel and be put to use in another form.

Over the weekend, my patient husband watched Futureworld with me. Its a terrible movie from 1976, starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner as reporters investigating a rebuilt amusement park where androids staff, and are, the attractions. It was a sequel to Westworld, a much more successful film. Westworld stayed close to Michael Crichton’s meme of powerful technology having a disastrous vulnerability, whereas Futureworld strayed into mad scientists and world domination. The trailer gives away the big twist, but shows Delos (the overall park, of which Futureworld and Westworld are sections) in some of its cheesy glory.

We watched the film before I knew that HBO is turning Westworld into a series. Guess I’ll have to let my DVR pick that up in September and hope that it’s good. I’d like to see a series take a more optimistic view of robot/human interactions, though. Maybe not as Utopian as The Jetsons, but more like Almost Human; man and machine in a sometimes flawed partnership.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in Gaming, Our Robot Overlords, Video

 

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Wednesday films: Chef, phlebotomist, and dubstep robots

Three short videos for your Wednesday enjoyment! The first is a cute musical film (wait for the drop).

 

Dubstep Dispute from Fluxel Media on Vimeo.

The next two are recently released robotic news videos. One is for a robot chef, or at least, an automated kitchen system that uses robotic arms. I don’t see it being practical, but the suspended robot arms are similar to something in a story I’m writing. The last video is for a robotic phlebotomist. I saw an article suggesting that this would be good for people with fear of needles. No, it would not be!  Dear heavens. I have a fainting response to needles and the slow process of holding my arm in place and then the machine putting in the line would be awful.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2015 in In the News, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Emotional robots and all the feels

With Ex Machina opening (it’s on my list for the weekend Seriously?? Not in wide release?? WTF??), Slate published an article about emotional robots — or at least, the emulation of human emotion by artificial intelligence. It’s a good piece.

The human tendency to anthropomorphize means that we only need a tiny hint of emotion and interaction to perceive much more. Many of us see our vehicles as having distinct personalities, after all. I think interactivity and a touch of randomness make the most difference between us reacting to something as an object or as a creature.

In Second Life, animated wolf with limited AI watching other animated creatures in a vegetable garden

After I wrote about Second Life gacha recently, I bought a few Piccoli by D-Lab. There have been Christmas and gardening sets offered at The Arcade, but before I saw them in the video I embedded, I had no idea that they were animated.  They are, and they’re adorable.  I have a few pieces set up in the yard and the Piccoli creatures wander around, tending the garden, riding birds, visiting, chatting with moles, and turning on the water sprinkler. They’re absurdly cute and can be picked up and held, but they don’t interact with non-Piccoli people or things.

In the photo above, you can see my wolf greeting one of the Piccoli.  Wolfy is a pet from the Virtual Kennel Club. His appearance and animations are less detailed and smooth than the Piccoli, but he is designed to interact with people and things. The commands he can learn are sophisticated by SL standards: there is a standard set of commands, but behaviors can be chained, customized, and given priority if he receives praise for doing them.

Which creature provokes an emotional response: the twee and gorgeous Piccoli or the cruder but interactive Wolfy?  Wolfy, hands down. I’ll go into the yard to watch the Piccoli for a couple minutes, but when I sign on and find Wolfy carrying a different toy or he howls after I pet him, I’m touched. The Piccoli are predictable; I’m curious to see what Wolfy will be doing. The answer to that can be amusing. He greets other scripted objects, so I sometimes find him greeting a couch or lamp.

Wolfy was an Easter gift from Jakob, to keep me company since he can’t be online as much as before. It’s sweet but also heart-rending to have this wolf as a stand-in for my partner.

Last Thursday, Jakob wasn’t healthy enough for his biweekly palliative chemotherapy. He and I are connected on a family app that shares our phone GPS data with each other, so I know he went to the hospital for a few hours yesterday — when his treatment was rescheduled — and he returned home. I haven’t heard from him at all, though, and the app can’t locate him now (his phone might be off). He has missed two of our scheduled meeting times and hasn’t sent an email. This worry is hard to take. [Update: I exchanged notes with Jakob’s sister, who told me he was taken to the hospital by ambulance today. His blood sugar has been up and down like a roller coaster and he was incoherent. I won’t hear from him until he’s back home, but his sister is kind enough to give me news now and then.]

Health permitting, Jakob and I will have our vacation in five weeks and though we’ve had to alter some plans to make it possible, we’ll do our best. It’s a bit like Amsterdam in The Fault in Our Stars: it won’t be easy, it will probably be dangerous, but he really needs a chance to experience more than being sick in his apartment or the hospital. As the weeks zip by and his health remains so fragile, I’m increasingly nervous about taking him far from his doctors, but he insists it will be ok. Wish us luck.

 

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