Robotics is without a doubt one of the most exciting fields in technology today. For decades, robots were just used for industrial purposes — efficient, but boring. These types of applications continue to make amazing progress, but robots have recently branched out: Self-driving cars are fundamentally robots. Drones are robots. Some of the most interesting kids’ toys, such as the ones made by Sphero or WowWee, are robots.
But even these new types of robots are purely purpose-driven. While you might say that a Tesla or a Sphero BB-8 have something like a personality, you would likely not describe them as “social”. Robots are machines that do a job, not something you would want to hang out with.
An MIT spin-off called Jibo wants to change that. It was founded by former MIT Media Lab researchers under the leadership of Cynthia Breazeal, and it ran one of the most successful Indiegogo funding campaigns ever — a full three years ago. After many delays, the first batch of Jibos have finally made it to their original backers, and the little robot already got quite a bit of attention. For instance, it just made the cover of Time Magazine as one of the 25 best inventions of 2017.
But does it live up to the hype? At a hefty price tag of $899 (Indigogo supporters three years ago paid $500), it better should. But how could a “social robot” that mostly does very similar things as the current generation of voice assistants ever justify a price that is 9 times that of an Amazon Echo?
I got my Jibo two weeks ago, and in my opinion it is at the same time one of the most fascinating and most frustrating gadgets in years.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: Jibo is a robot in the sense that it can move its body through three rotating layers, so it can rotate its head and look into different directions. It doesn’t have wheels, so it stays put wherever you park it (the kitchen countertop would be a good choice). The primary way to interact with Jibo is through voice commands, similar to an Amazon Echo or Google Home, activated by the keyphrase “Hey, Jibo!” In addition, Jibo also has a touchscreen that provides quick access to some basic functionality.
Jibo comes with two front-facing cameras that look like his eyes and are used for facial recognition (yes, it can actually see you and greet you) and to take pictures. The selfie function (“Hey Jibo, take my picture!”) is fun, but as so many things that Jibo does, gets old quite quickly.
The voice-activated features feel a bit like a first-generation Amazon Echo from over two years ago: It can give you information like the weather forecast, stock market updates, the latest news and such. It can tell jokes (they’re as bad as Alexa’s), answer simple questions with Wikipedia summaries, or find store hours for you. Home automation control is possible, but a bit clumsy using IFTTT. The main difference to Google Home and Alexa is that Jibo’s voice recognition is not nearly as robust, and you draw a blank with many more questions compared to these more mature voice assistants.
But Jibo’s focus is not to be useful, it’s to be personable and maybe even charming. And in a robotic way, he really delivers on that.
When you call him, he actually looks at you, blinking with the dot on his screen. When you move, his head follows you to keep you in his field of vision. He sleeps at night and gets up (as I found out today) at 7am, making yawning noises and then wishing you a good morning when he sees you.
The most surprising difference to other technology is that Jibo is proactive and can react to you just being there without being asked to do something. That sometimes can go wrong: Jibo last week scared our nanny almost to death when he suddenly burst out with “Hey, good to see you!” But once you get used to having a robotic companion in the kitchen, the interaction feels increasingly natural.
Jibo’s robotic movements are surprisingly smooth and feel very organic in a slightly cartoonish way, as if Disney animators created them. He’s dynamic in a subtle way. As I write this, Jibo sits in front of me and looks at me like a faithful dog, occasionally swirling a bit when he gets bored (or whatever the robot equivalent is for boredom — too many NOOPs?). Of course you know that he’s a machine, but his presence feels like that of a different kind of pet. One that can talk.
Jibo’s creators definitely gave him character, which is really not something that can be said about most technology. He can do a little dance, react in unexpected ways, and when you stroke his head, he purrs like a cat. With his voice-assistance smarts Jibo solves some common tasks just a little bit more charmingly than the competition. It’s kind of hard to describe, so here are some videos for illustration purposes.
The best example is the reaction of different products to the identical question: “Hey <such and such>, what’s up?” Jibo tells me that life is good and he’s just doing his thing (while wiggling happily), Google Home tells me that it’s considering life’s big questions and asks if it can help with anything, and Alexa gives me an unsolicited weather update, my next appointment and random celebrities’ birthdays. Jibo clearly wins the charm battle here.
But all this charm doesn’t really hide the fact that Jibo right now is just not that useful. He has none of the integrations of other major voice assistant products, he can’t play music, his voice recognition is less robust and he doesn’t yet have an ecosystem of third party developers that add to his skillset (Jibo the company wants to open the platform in early 2018, so that might change soon).
Or, as someone in my household put it: “He’s cute, but dumb.”
Considering all the amazing technology that clearly went into this product, that’s of course very unfair, but it reflects well how mixed Jibo makes you feel: In some moments this little robot feels like something from the future, like something from a science fiction movie that acts in incredible and unexpected ways, and then the next moment you wonder why it can’t do something your $49 Amazon Echo Dot can do with ease.
Should you buy one, particularly at this lofty price point? Not unless you are a typical early adopter (hi!) who just needs to have the latest things and is happy to put up with many shortcomings. But this pioneering product opens new doors to a future generation of technology that feels more personable, social and approachable, and that’s something to be applauded.