By Jessica Van Sack
The world’s first social robot for the family, “Jibo,” is being made right here in Boston by a leading roboticist who believes that in a few years, the platform could be as ubiquitous as the iPad.
“Jibo’s role is to be your personal helper,” said famed MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, creator of the bot. “To help families and extended families do the wide range of things they need to do.”
Available in black or white, Jibo is six pounds and 11 inches of digital personality. Its job is to act like a personal assistant, or a coordinator of family chaos. It connects to devices via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
It comes with its own storage cloud and the ability to send and receive reminders, take pictures, tell stories and even facilitate video conferencing.
I recently sat down with Breazeal as she demonstrated Jibo.
The simplicity of the robot is striking: It’s a base that sits at attention and props up a hemisphere-shaped “head.
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The form factor is a triumph in subtlety, with the smallest movements and expressions giving Jibo the ability to appear to dance, laugh and emote.
A promotional video for Jibo shows the robot reading “The Three Little Pigs” to a child, just as a parent might — playfully and under a makeshift fort.
“Jibo brings all kinds of content to life with engagement and expressivity,” said Breazeal. “Jibo isn’t an e-reader. It’s a storyteller that makes eye contact with you.”
It’s with that in mind that Boston Children’s Hospital has agreed to begin piloting Jibo next year.
Already, about 50 robots have been donated to the hospital through a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Breazeal envisions Jibo could serve to make certain people less isolated. Children undergoing treatment are one example, and senior citizens are another.
For instance, she imagines a third-party developer creating an Uber app for Jibo that makes transportation easier for the elderly.
Jibo’s ultimate success will depend on generating interest among developers to design apps that extend and expand upon core functions.
For Breazeal, the success of Jibo’s crowdfunding campaign was validation that “people are in fact ready to have a social robot in their life.”
The campaign has raised over $1.5 million in under four weeks.
Already, more than 3,000 devices have been pre- ordered and are scheduled to ship around the end of next year.
A home edition costs $499, and it’s $599 for the developer edition.
Team Jibo includes leading engineers in Silicon Valley and Boston, speech recognition experts, serial entrepreneurs and even
Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, an early backer of the project.
Of course, this technology faces its share of challenges.
Any device that relies this heavily on the evolving science of speech recognition will face hurdles, as evidenced by the litany of complaints from owners of Microsoft’s Xbox One interactive console.
But Breazeal believes Jibo will survive and thrive because it’s a device that encourages human interaction — as opposed to tablets and smartphones that often hog our attention and isolate us.
Said Breazeal, “I think we need to create technologies that bring the family together.”