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Meet the Newest (Robotic) Member of Your Family

This emotional robot can tell stories, remember appointments, and make faces

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There may soon be another family member waiting when you get home. Seated at your dinner table. Perched beside your bed. There to cheer you up when you've had a long day. A family member to trust with your kids, with your weekend plans, with your happiness. 

Cynthia Breazeal has long been building robots for research, but now she's designed one to be part of your life. Its name is Jibo, and Breazeal is currently taking pre-orders in a crowdfunding campain. Jibo's hardware isn't much better than an iPhone, says IEEE Spectrum, and the tasks it can perform aren't much different. Jibo doesn't have better logic, just better sensibilities. 

IEEE Spectrum explains: 

Breazeal says Jibo is designed as an interactive companion and helper to families, capable of engaging people in ways that a computer or mobile device aren't able to. The secret is not powerful processors or better sensors; it's emotion. Jibo is different from other gadgets because it treats you like a human being, she says. "Emotion is the next wave of this humanized high-touch engagement with technology."

Breazeal has been riding that wave for nearly two decades. Her first emotional robot, Kismet, is a study in human facial expressions. Twenty one motors in Kismet's face control a big smile, batty eyelids and perky ears. Jibo, in contrast, is sleek, shiny and has a flush, clean screen for a face. Functionally, Jibo aims to be the best of Kismet and the iPhone: Jibo will remind you of appointments, recite recipes and take your photograph. But it will also blink, express itself and tilt its cute cyclops head. 

In the years since Kismet's design, computers have shrunk to the size of pocket watches, while others have grown in power. One computer, IBM's Watson, has competed on Jeopardy through a cold, logoed facade. Though Watson can understand the casual nature of human language and the intracacies of jokes, it does not reflect the same empathy. Imagine living till death do you part with the hyper-smart Watson in your home: always ready to serve up the most esoteric of information, but hardly capable of consoling you after the simplest of bad days.

We already live with stilted, helpful tech: the iPhone's resident smarty-pants Siri is just one example. Earlier this week, reports of marines feeling affection for the lumbering LS3 DARPA robot demonstrated that humans can feel affection for creepy wads of wire. 

Yet with Breazeal's latest imagining, and the future iterations sure to come, we're set to descend into a future that is a hybrid of the Watsons and the Jibos of the robot world. It's not hard to imagine a future robot companion who is useful to the mind and to the heart. 

Here's what Breazeal had to say about this burgeoning affection for robots, back in 2001 in a statement from MIT

"I think people are often afraid that technology is making us less human. Kismet is a counterpoint to that -- it really celebrates our humanity. This is a robot that thrives on social interactions."

Those same words may apply to Jibo, though the diminuative bot is no longer so much a counterpoint as an addition. We are hardly afraid of too much screen time, and Jibo might just be another way to embrace what we already know and love.

Jibo has evolved Breazeal's notion of intelligent robots in other ways, too. While Kismet was desgined to be a child, to learn from the world the way an infant does, Jibo is here to adapt to your feelings and whims. In the advertising video above, we see Jibo standing in as a personal assistant, wingman, or babysitter.

More than ten years ago, a video opened up with Breazeal saying this to her then-latest creation

"Hello, Kismet, [a]re you going to talk to me?"

Last week at a demo, as IEEE Spectrum reports, she just had a request:  

"Jibo, please introduce yourself." 

We are done raising robots. Now, they are here to raise us.

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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