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Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, believes that the time is right for technology to become humanized, and that social robotics can help with elder care and disease management.
Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, believes that the time is right for technology to become humanized, and that social robotics can help with elder care and disease management.

Jibo, the family robot, snaps photos and reads to your kids. Is it a saviour or just creepy? Add to ...

It’s been described as an alarm clock on steroids and a desk lamp crossed with something out of Pixar’s Wall-E.

Meet Jibo: The “world’s first family robot.”

The 28-centimetre, 3-kilogram “sociable robot” snaps family photos, handles video calling and acts as a digital concierge. Connected wirelessly to the Internet, Jibo sifts through messages, organizes your itinerary and orders takeout. But Jibo can also perform more intimate tasks, reminding Grandpa to take his meds or reading bedtime stories to a child. Advertised as an “attentive companion” for seniors and a “responsive playmate” for kids, Jibo swivels to look at whoever it addresses, its face a large “blinking ball” beamed from a high-definition screen, an effect not unlike Cyclops.

One in a long line of sociable robots, Jibo is the brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology social robots pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, who previously gave the world Kismet, an expressive robotic head that possessed the motivations of a six-month-old child. Kismet came to life in the nineties, which also saw the release of the wildly popular robotic Tamagotchi and Furby toys. In 1999, Sony released AIBO, a robotic dog-like pet. Paro, a robotic baby harp seal, came on the scene in 2004, offering companionship to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. In June, Japanese inventors unleashed Pepper, a four-foot-tall robot that can dance, tell jokes and read human emotions.

In the humanized technology of Jibo, Breazeal sees potential for strengthening family bonds, as well as a “teammate” in education, chronic-disease management and elder care. But is it a creepy, manufactured friend? Or a thoroughly modern way to save time and resources? The Globe spoke with Breazeal from Boston, where she’s on leave from her role as director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab until Jibo gets to market. (An Indiegogo.com campaign for the robot surpassed $1-million [U.S.] since being posted last week. Christmas, 2015, will see a limited run of Jibos at U.S. $499 each; a more expensive mass-manufactured version will roll out in 2016.)

You’ve said that it’s now crucial for technology to be humanized. Why?

We know that the demand for humanized services – learning, health, elder care – is far outpacing the ability for institutions to meet that demand. What we found from working with doctors, coaches and professors in education, wellness, chronic-disease management and aging independently is that if you design technology to provide social supports, people actually do better. These are all domains where engagement from a supportive other really matters. It’s a very different interaction relationship than you have with devices today. Social robots are designed around a principle of partnership and have real emotional value to people as part of family life. They play a role for you but they have autonomy, versus being a tool that you use.

Why does Jibo not look more human?

People’s knee-jerk reaction right now is that technology is trying to replace us. The fact that Jibo is so obviously a robot and not trying to be a human is important because we’re not trying to compete with human relationships. Jibo is there to support what matters to people. People need people.

Apple’s Siri aside, people are still wary of social robotics. We envision HAL and see it going rogue.

There is a cultural milieu that’s been established through our movies and literature around the question of what it means to be human. Once you are replacing a human with a talking technology like Samantha in Her, it poses a deep philosophical question. The modern dialogue within robotics is partnership, supplementing, complementing, letting people do what they want to do and are great at, and letting machines do the other stuff. There’s so much entrenched imagery from science fiction and the robotic past – robotics replacing human labour – that we have to keep repeating what the new, more enlightened view is.

There are ethical concerns that social robots will further alienate humans from one another. Do you get why some people might be queasy about outsourcing geriatric care to Paro, a robotic seal with sweeping eyelashes, or handing off the parenting rite of reading a bedtime story to Jibo?

My kids have iPads and computers. Their nose goes in and they walk off with it and you’re like, “Excuse me, sweetheart, I’m still here.” Jibo, because it’s socially embodied, because it can look at multiple people, it welcomes and invites group participation. What I see is Mom or Dad or a sibling there with Jibo and with the child doing things together. It becomes a community device.

What practical applications do you see for Jibo in elder care?

We talked to a lot of busy families, sandwiched baby boomers who are taking care of their own kids as well as their parents. They’re completely stressed out and overwhelmed. They’re like, “I’m the one person who’s got to make sure everybody’s doing what they need to be doing. If I could just have a helper that my mom would love, who could provide her with a sense of companionship that’s not trying to replace me but who could help her, remind her to do things she needs to do.” Medication reminders are huge. Or video calls: [through Jibo’s screen] you, as a senior, could pop into the house of your daughter or son and “sit” at the dining room table, enjoy that family dinner and feel like you’re part of the group dynamic. You can talk to the group, turn and have that side conversation [because Jibo’s screen swivels]. You can’t have that if you’re just a flat face on a screen.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home and I’m meaning to call my mom and then it’s 11 o’clock at night and I’ve totally forgotten. If I could just come home and say, “Jibo, I want to talk to my mom tonight.” And then he co-ordinates with her Jibo and says, “Oh, Cynthia, your mom is available now. Shall I connect you?” That would be amazing for me. It’s the pro-active helping, that’s what’s so game-changing about this. I see Jibo as helping to support family connection in a richer way.

MIT technology and society specialist Sherry Turkle urged caution around social robotics in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle was particularly concerned about robotic companionship in elder care. She points out that this will never be real, mutual affection.

If you take the position that the only worthwhile experience in relationships is an authentic human experience, yes, of course, technology’s never going to provide that for you. This is not the kind of relationship you have with people or companion animals or devices, but it’s intriguing, how it pulls attributes from each of those to create this new category. It can provide real value in combatting chronic loneliness, considered as serious a chronic disease as smoking and obesity. This is a problem that I do feel social robots can authentically help us address in a way that supports our human values. It’s not about offloading relationships, at all.

How would you personally use Jibo?

I see using it for photo capture so I can be in the moment, finally. I see it helping me bring in my mom and dad, who live in the San Francisco area, to family dinner in Boston so they can feel closer to my kids. I can put Jibo on the family room floor. I have three boys: They gotta run and play. I can have my parents be actually able to play with, engage and watch my kids, make it a much more participatory experience.

And I can certainly see Jibo giving me an answer when I ask, “What do I have on my calendar? Jibo, what the hell do I have to do today?”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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