A Robot With a Little Humanity

The New York Times Blogs (Bits)

July 17, 2014

Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT scientist, is working on a robotic companion intended to make human interactions with computers more like the way people interact with one another.

As a graduate student at MIT in the 1990s, Cynthia Breazeal studied with the roboticist Rodney Brooks and explored the idea of "social" robots that were designed to interact and collaborate with humans.

In 2012 Dr. Brooks began selling a stationary robot, Baxter, bearing an expressive LCD-panel "face" and intended to collaborate with human workers in manufacturing and logistics.

Now Dr. Breazeal (pronounced bruh-ZILL), who is on leave from her teaching position at the MIT Media Laboratory, is trying to bring similar ideas to the home in the form of a robot companion: Jibo.

Dr. Breazeal is best known for the creation of an elaborate robot head, Kismet, that contained actuators, sensors and computer technology for understanding and interacting with humans, primarily infants and young children. Kismet had eyes, ears and a mouth, was expressive and tried to mimic human emotional states.

Jibo, in contrast, is more of an abstraction. Almost a foot tall, weighing six pounds and wirelessly connected to the Internet, it has a moveable LCD screen that in demonstrations displays an expressive orb, but not a human face.

Jibo will be something of an alarm clock on steroids. The robot, which is a stack of three components allowing the display to swivel freely in any direction, is intended to be a family companion performing a variety of interactive tasks like sending messages, taking pictures, acting as a personal messenger and serving as a robotic stand-in during conversations between people in different places, as well as a "friend" with a personality.

The company is also hoping that software developers will seize on Jibo as a platform and create applications that will extend the robot's functions to things like tutoring and coaching.

"It's really important for technology to be humanized," Dr. Breazeal said. "The next stage in computing, the next wave, is emotion."

By placing an "intelligent" system in homes, she says, she is hoping to transform the nature of computer-human interaction—from today's systems using mice, keyboards, windows and touch to something that is more natural and mimics the way humans themselves interact. Jibo also represents a model for robotics that is intended to extend or augment human capabilities rather than replace them.

Sony sold a robotic home pet, Aibo, from 1999 to 2006, and last month Softbank, a Japanese consumer electronics firm, announced that in early 2015 it would begin selling Pepper, a four-foot-tall, 65-pound home robot that is capable of "reading" human emotions. Pepper will cost $1,900.

Roboticists say the companies introducing home robots still face significant technical hurdles.

"Cynthia has been a great pioneer in this field, including her work at MIT with Kismet," said Tandy Trower, an engineer who led Microsoft's robotics group and more recently founded Hoaloha Robotics to focus on elder care in the home. "However, delivering such an experience that is more than a toy is not easy, as it requires being able to replicate human interaction not just for a few hours, but day after day."

Robots and computers that mimic human qualities are still highly controversial among computer scientists and technologists. Ben Shneiderman is a University of Maryland computer scientist who has argued for interface design where users directly manipulate virtual objects and has been opposed to the development of computer "agents" with imitation personalities. While both Apple and Microsoft have developed such humanized assistants with their Siri and Cortana smartphone assistants, Google has shied away from humanizing the speech-recognition functions of its Android phones.

"The mind-shift for me when I first started this company is that in robotics, so much has been around the assumption that robots are a labor device," Dr. Breazeal said. "What I discovered is that robotics are a powerful way to engage people in a more humanized way."

One possible application is that inexpensive, conversational robots could be used to support the development of language skills in young children. Still, the idea of using machines as companions makes some uneasy, as dramatized in the recent science fiction movie "Her," in which the actor Joaquin Phoenix develops a relationship with a Siri-like intelligent software agent.

A similar discomfort is expressed by Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), which describes Dr. Breazeal's work. "I believe that sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it can't deliver," Ms. Turkle writes. "It promises friendship but can only deliver performances. Do we really want to be in the business of manufacturing friends that will never be friends?"

Security will also be a concern. Although many homes now have camera-based security systems and web cameras, one challenge that the Jibo robot will face will be to persuade families to trust a device that has video and audio capabilities as well as the potential for being controlled remotely. Dr. Breazeal acknowledged the issue and said the Jibo developers were committed to "best practices" in computer security.

The Jibo robot will not be commercially available for more than a year. Developer units will be available in the fall of 2015, and the company said the $499 consumer version was planned for the 2015 holiday season.

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