I’ve written about my soft spot for robots before but it feels like it’s time to return to the topic again. A few months ago I went along to the opening of the new Edinburgh Centre for Robotics and the message was clear – like it or not, autonomous systems are coming.
However I’ve not written before about social robotics. If you have no idea what that term means, I recommend watching this excellent talk by Cynthia Breazeal (transcript here).
Breazeal is a true innovator in her field. She supposedly had a flash of inspiration back in 1997 when the first robotic explorer rolled onto the surface of Mars (a device whose development she had influenced) and realised that whilst we were focused on using robots to explore the outer reaches of both the earth and space, we were making very little headway in bringing robots into the home.
Pioneering research into the effect of robots, some of the results have been intriguing. Put simply, the more able the machine is to identify, mimic and respond to standard human non-verbal cues, the greater the degree of empathy – and consequently value – there is with the humans present.
As you’ll see in that talk, it’s fascinating to think of the potential for developing such technologies that take account of the multitude of social clues and inputs in such a way that remote grandparents to play with grandchildren in real time as if they were in the same room. Similarly, if the robot’s purpose is to help you to stick to a fitness regime, the more lifelike it becomes, the evidence shows that the more positive the impact it will have on your life.
After a lifetime of research and improving in each project that she’s undertaken, Breazeal has now taken a leave of absence from MIT where she was teaching to launch a new robot for the home.
There’s a real buzz building around Jibo following an oversubscribed Indiegogo crowd funding campaign ($2.2 million raised on a $100K goal). There’s no doubt that part of this is down to the fact that Breazeal is a leading light when it comes to bringing robots into the home, with Forbes asking whether she might be the Steve Wozniak of robots. However, the main reason is because Jibo in fact represents a platform upon which others can develop software (think apps for robots).
As with any new fields of technology, there’s will be risks here that have to be addressed as Jibo and its descendants start to make their way into the kitchens – and other rooms – of our houses.
As with any device connected to the Internet, there are the usual security/hacking risks. These may be heightened by the fact that any robot that is able to accurately mimic real human responses may, in the wrong hands, be capable of manipulating owners (economically or in other ways). Or another example is that a robot could be instructed to pick up a house key and push it through a cat flap for a potential (presumably pretty high-tech) burglar to let himself in. It’s an issue that Jibo avoids entirely by having no means to grab objects (or indeed move around the room – interesting when you see the evidence that shows that humans’ empathy for robots tends to increase in line with the extent to which they can move).
There’s also an interesting question to be answered around how ever-present personal robots could mark the end of genuine solitude, particularly given the fact that people self-modify behaviour automatically when they believe that they are being observed.
It’s very early days but I have a really good feeling about Jibo being successful when it finally ships later this year. I think it will be successful as a consumer ‘family’ robot, a sector that can only get more crowded in the coming years. The design is brilliantly simple, neatly avoiding that uncanny valley issue entirely from attempting to be too humanoid and it has a real chance of kicks tarting that social robotics revolution that we’ve all grown up reading about or watching in popular films no matter what age group we belong to.