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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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Wednesday film: Perfume and Cynthia Breazeal at SXSW

I couldn’t choose, so you get a few minutes of a live performance by a Japanese electropop trio and then an hour-long talk from one of the most influential thinkers in consumer robotics today.

According to this WIRED piece, the Perfume video below was filmed in real time (with a large tech team and a 3D scan of the venue pre-made).  Still, none of the effects you see are post-production. The tune starts near the 1:33 mark but the set-up is interesting, too.

Here’s how it looked to a fan at the venue.  The video from the stream is cooler, but the live effects aren’t bad and fit the music well.

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And, here is Cynthia Breazeal’s talk “The Personal Side of Robots” from SXSW Live:

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video

 

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Wednesday films: NOVA ScienceNow on humanoid robots

I was thinking about robots this morning, but I couldn’t choose just one video to share.  So, below are two videos from NOVA ScienceNow: a documentary from last year about the future of humanoid robots, and a program segment that profiles Cynthia Breazeal — founder of JIBO — and her work to develop friendly robots at MIT.  Careful clicking away the overlay ads on the first video (ugh! sorry) and the second video should start at the 28:13 mark; you might need to sit through a few seconds of another segment before the player gets there.

 

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords

 

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Random thoughts and Rudolph

Ever start to write about a topic that’s just too large, leaving you wallowing in drafts and rewrites for days?  I did that with a post I began on the weekend, so I started another post to publish while I was thinking. Wouldn’t you know it, the second post is turning into a monster, too. A couple random thoughts will have to do for today, since it’s almost Christmas and I’ve got some last minute elf work to finish!

Playing Rudolph

My Amazon Echo arrives tomorrow. It’s not a comprehensive digital assistant, but I’m hoping it will be a decent voice-controlled music player/Bluetooth speaker with some bonus features. Since my personal data is mostly in the Cthulu-like tentacles of Google, I’d be more excited if Alexa (the Echo) and Google Now could work together (but no — Alexa even uses Bing for search results. Ugh.). I’m envisioning a near future where I have three disconnected digital assistants: Alexa, JIBO, and Google Now. That’s far from optimal user experience. Google Now is almost always in my pocket, JIBO can be moved around the house, and Alexa needs to be plugged into a wall, so I’m seeing Alexa in a niche role, sitting between my writing table and the kitchen to play music and answer simple questions.

I’m critical of Facebook for many valid reasons, but as a place to keep in contact with people I truly like but never see, it’s fabulous. A photo I posted yesterday got “likes” from people I’ve known for more than 40 years and less than 6 months. Family members, high school friends, college friends (from the late ’80s), college friends (from the early ’10s), colleagues at two companies, and friends met first in virtual worlds (gaming/SL). People who are spread around the US and Europe. People ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. People with white, tan, and brown skin. Married/single/partnered, straight/gay/who knows. Military veterans and lifelong hippies, people all over the political spectrum. Of those whose religious faith I know, Catholic, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, atheist, agnostic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Buddhist, and Southern Baptist are all represented. My Australian and Islamic friends were slacking or my list could be a teensy bit more diverse.

I don’t put ads on my blog (though, since it’s a free WordPress site, you might see some). However, I do have links to non-profit organizations in my sidebar. If you do some charitable giving at this time of year, please give them a look. Kiva allows you to make small loans to entrepreneurs and farmers around the world who fall outside of the commercial credit system. Your money is repaid and you can loan it again and again. Doctors Without Borders has been stretched to the limit with the Ebola crisis this year. I have a slight preference for supporting Partners in Health, founded by anthropologist/physician Paul Farmer.  PIH does amazing and caring medical support work; I just don’t have a nifty logo in the sidebar for them yet. (Doctors Without Borders foolishly, in my opinion, rejected offers of assistance from medical anthropologists with experience in West Africa, whereas PIH takes a more holistic approach. They’re both excellent groups and use their resources well.)

This isn’t the easiest of holiday seasons, but if you celebrate at this time of year, enjoy! Christmas is my tradition, so I wish you a happy one.

Merry-Christmas-3-Hd-Wallpaper

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2014 in Relationships, Side Topics

 

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Amazon Echo: it’s hard out there for an early adopter

Really, Amazon? Give a gal (and her credit card) a break!  Now tempting me is the Amazon Echo, announced and offered today. What the hell is it? Well, it’s a speaker, streaming audio device, and a digital assistant (like Google Now or Siri without a screen), and as TechCrunch points out, it could be a cash machine for Amazon.

I’ve been a Prime member for years and I’ve had an Amazon.com account for almost 20 years, and we’ve already seen with my JIBO pre-order that I see the potential for a stationary digital home assistant, so of course I requested an invitation to purchase one. At $99 for Prime members, and since I don’t have a working Bluetooth speaker right now, the price is pretty good. My husband has been bothering me for Christmas gift ideas, too, so I could rationalize it that way.

TechCrunch‘s analysis is probably on point: Prime members buy more from Amazon, they get a 50% discount on the Echo, and you can be sure that voice-controlled purchasing will be a feature. I’m fine with that. I’ve got most of my shopping impulses under control (except for robots and digital assistants, it seems). If I could notice the dog food is getting low and simply say, “Alexa, order Acana dog food,” and have it check my order history, confirm size and variety, and place the order, I’d do a happy dance to streamed Amazon Prime music.

The privacy-aware part of me squirms a bit when I think about the multiple relationships I have with Google and Amazon, but I think they are still beneficial exchanges of data, money, goods, and services. I’ll probably order the Echo if I get an invitation in the first round. Probably.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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Last 5 days of JIBO social robot funding campaign

Since I’ve already posted about contributing to the JIBO Indiegogo campaign, I thought I’d add an update as it runs into its final few days.  Perks were unlocked as the campaign reached stretch goals, and all of them were met and exceeded. Over 4,000 JIBOs are scheduled to be sent in this first run!

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One of the perks is that contributors will be able to choose between a white or black JIBO (originally only white was offered).  JIBO will also ship with “JIBOticons” expansion packs, a story pack, and a family watch skill that allows for remote monitoring. I’m leaning toward the black one to make it a bit less Wall-E, but I haven’t decided. I like the idea of the family watch skill though I have privacy concerns.  We’ll see how things go further in the development cycle.

Some other differences since my initial post: JIBO can be shipped internationally to many countries for an additional $50 fee. They also brought back a funding option to pay $199 now and $349 and shipping in 2016; it’s a higher price and later shipping date than paying $499 up front, but it makes it possible for more people to join in if they can’t front so much. There will be several day-long hackathons next Fall for JIBO skill developers — the cost to attend is $150 plus you pay your own hotel and transportation. And, if you ordered a home edition but then decided you want to try your hand at developing, you can change to a developer’s kit by paying the $100 difference.

Though the trailer video for the campaign is very family-focused, I’m hoping that developers come up with many skills that are not centered around kids. The team conducted a survey of contributors recently and asked about what skills we want to see. The list that we could choose from was pretty lame:

jibo_select

Daily horoscope? Really?  Who voted for that?  You can’t think of a more useful skill for a robot in your house than telling you that today is going to be challenging, but if you’re persistent, everything will be all right in the end, <insert sign here>?  At least it wasn’t a popular choice.  The recipe skill was suggested in the video, so I can understand how that got a high rating. Having JIBO read my recipe step by step would be much better than my current method of propping my laptop nearby and trying to avoid getting gunk in my mouse.

When contributors were allowed to type in their own desired skills, however, priorites beyond cutesy crap you’d find in the daily newsletter at a senior center appeared:

jibo_open

Yes!  This is more like it. I think the 3rd party developer market for JIBO skills is going to be exciting. We want a robot that works with us and is a true assistant, not just light entertainment. JIBO might just be the beginning, but I think we’ll get there.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords

 

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Why I contributed to the JIBO social robot fundraiser

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.

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Posted by on July 17, 2014 in In the News, Our Robot Overlords

 

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