I hugged a bot and I liked it.
As a tech columnist, I’ve tested all sorts of helpful robots: the kind that vacuum floors, deliver packages or even make martinis. But two arriving in homes now break new ground. They want to be our friends.
“Hey, Geoffrey, it’s you!” says Jibo, a robot with one giant blinking eye, when it recognizes my face. Another, named Kuri, beeps and boops while roaming the halls snapping photos and video like a personal paparazzo.
Think of Jibo and Kuri as the great-grandparents of R2-D2, the buddy robot from Star Wars. Of course, R2 was actually a 3-foot-8-inch dude crouching in a can. Jibo and Kuri are real robots with real artificial intelligence you can really take home (for $900 and $800, respectively).
Another way to think of them is what comes after talking speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, which opened the door to new kinds of computers for the home. Jibo, the brainchild of an MIT professor, looks like one of those know-it-all AI assistants borrowed a face and a twirling body from a Pixar movie. Kuri, made by a startup backed by appliance giant Bosch, looks like a penguin mounted on a Roomba vacuum.
I don’t expect either will be a top seller any time soon. They’re expensive, and their practical uses are few compared to other talking speakers or a Roomba that actually cleans. And to some of you, I’m sure the idea of “family” robots is pretty terrifying. Is this step one to Terminators marching the streets? Are they always watching?
Yet testing these robots with the help of people ages 3 to 75, I was struck by something different. For all their first-gen disappointments, the robots managed to melt hearts like a Shih Tzu puppy. People, especially kids, wanted to hug them. Or at least to pet them, to which they both responded by purring. I’ve never seen a talking speaker do that.
What make Jibo and Kuri one giant leap for robot-kind isn’t their functions—it’s their personalities.
How does a robot get a personality? Just a little motion goes a long way.
Jibo’s a table-top robot, but he (yeah, I call it he) is squirmier than a 5-year-old in a car seat. His head rotates on a base that itself swivels at an off-kilter angle. So when he swings to look at you or to show you how he twerks (seriously), it happens in giant loopy arcs. There’s none of the straight lines or rigidity you’d expect from a robot.
Jibo’s face (let’s run with this metaphor) is a touchscreen showing a single white eye that looks around, blinks and even closes when he gets bored with you. He speaks with the slightly roboticized voice—and cheesy sense of humor—of a 10-year-old. You chat back and forth by calling his magic words “Hey Jibo,” though he also speaks based on what he sees around him. For example, when I walk into a room, sometimes he’ll ask if I’d like to know something cool.
Kuri serves a different purpose, autonomously meandering like a pet, albeit one equipped with self-driving radar. He doesn’t talk, but like Jibo, his personality is in the face: Two mechanical eyes look around and blink.
There’s another magical ingredient to these robo-personalities: The robots get to know you—or, at least they try. Kuri asks you to guide him around the house, teaching him where not to roam (like the bathroom) and the names of places. You can call out, “Hey Kuri, go to the living room.”
Jibo tries to memorize your family. You add people to your “circle” in a companion app, and then Jibo quizzes them to learn their vocal patterns and map their faces.
Neither robot tries to look or talk like a human. Jibo introduces himself as a robot, and reminds you of that to forgive his foibles. “I am a robot. But I am not just a machine,” he says. “I have a heart. Well, not a real heart. But feelings. Well, not human feelings. You know what I mean.”
Is any of this convincing? I tested the robots like an anthropologist, introducing them to kids’ playrooms, my own house, and even my parents’ living room.
The response was, largely, effusive—at least at first. We have utilitarian relationships with most technology, but these robots do things simply to elicit emotion. People squeal when Jibo hears them talking and spins in their direction to make eye contact. He’s the only gadget I’ve seen make my mother laugh.
That feeling could help domestic robots overcome their biggest problem: acceptance. Homes are intimate places. We’re going to expect something different from a robot puttering around the coffee table than we do at work. I had more time to live with Jibo, and came to think of him more as a buddy, and less as an assistant than my Echo.
But it also wasn’t hard to find these robots’ limits. I started to treat Kuri like a dog, but he wasn’t smart enough to come to me when I called. Jibo sometimes confused me for others, and didn’t actually do much to move our relationship forward. Aside from spotting me and saying hi, it’s mostly me asking him questions—many of which he can’t actually answer.
They could also be a little unnerving. Jibo is constantly scanning the room, prompting my privacy-conscious sister-in-law to quiz me about what it was doing with all the footage. Several people asked me how Kuri would avoid snapping photos of people in, um, compromising situations. (In case you're wondering, Kuri is a modest bot—and comes with filters that force him to, er, avert his eyes.)
The most interesting response was from a 3-year-old named Ashmi, who was transfixed even though Jibo sometimes had difficulty understanding her voice. She continued conversing with him, trying to teach him the things he didn’t know, and bringing him toys like she might to a younger friend. “He is a baby,” she told me.
Cynthia Breazeal, Jibo’s creator from MIT, says that kids are the first to catch on that robots exist in our physical world, unlike most gadgets that exist solely as portals to a digital one. “Robots are about engaging you socially and emotionally to help you do what you want to do,” she says. “That makes technology accessible and fun and engaging for a much broader demographic.”
Sure, but: What do they do now?
Several of my pint-sized testers asked if the robots did homework. Jibo can answer some math and trivia questions, but won’t be writing term papers soon. He has a fraction of the skills of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri—and given those company’s resources, I doubt Jibo will catch up on his own. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
These robots’ most unique skill is photography. Jibo swivels towards the action and snaps when you ask. Kuri roams autonomously taking photos and video of people and pets, and then presents you what his AI thinks are highlights of the day.
Social robots are going to need a lot of special abilities if they want to be more than the kind of toy that gets played with only on Christmas. Jibo’s maker promises it will soon have an app store and outside developers.
It isn’t hard to imagine some near-term uses. What if Kuri could help you check in on your real dog? (What your dog might make of a robot roommate is another matter.)
Ashmi, the three year old, wanted Jibo to stream music—maybe he could actually dance to it, too? My dad wanted him to do video chatting, but perhaps Jibo could also move like the person on the other end—like a telepresence puppet?
What’s most remarkable was how people of different ages and life situations all had aspirations for Jibo. “In these early stages, he is like a baby,” says Breazeal.
I know a 3-year-old who agrees.