Social robots arrive to praise, criticism

Jan. 25, 2018
Rick Nelson,
Executive Editor

The social robots have arrived. Jibo made his debut late last year, having been under development since late 2013. Speaking at ESC Boston in May 2015, Cynthia Breazeal of the MIT Media Lab and founder of Jibo Inc. described her motivation for developing Jibo. She compared social robots with other home robots, such as the Nest thermostat and Roomba vacuum cleaner, which have relationships with air and dirt. Her goal, beginning with the creation of Kismet in the late 1990s, has been to build a robot that can develop relationships with people. She likened Jibo to the offspring of R2D2 and an iPad.

Jibo has received both praise and criticism. Time named Jibo one of the 25 best inventions of 2017, noting that Jibo seems “downright human” in a way that Amazon Echo and Google Home do not. In Wired, Jeffrey Van Camp writes, “My wife and I found him absolutely adorable.” Molly Price at CNET counters that Jibo can’t do as much as Alexa and is too expensive. “His cute personality feels determined to distract you from his otherwise basic skills,” she writes. Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal calls Jibo “…intriguing, creepy, and annoying—mostly annoying.” She also has concerns about privacy.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT who investigated the psychology of people interacting with computers in The Second Self, levels the most substantive criticism of Jibo. “There is something deeply unsettling about encouraging children to confide in machines that are, in turn, sharing their conversations with countless others,” she writes in The Washington Post. She says children are especially susceptible to social robots’ programmed bids for attachment.

Turkle, who describes Breazeal as a friend and colleague with whom she has debated the ethics of social robots for years, describes a study she, Breazeal, and other researchers conducted in 2001, involving Kismet and another social robot. The 60 children ages 8 to 13 in the study saw the robots as “sort of alive” with feelings that mattered. One 8-year-old worried that Kismet liked his brother better. Turkle notes that whereas children can project thoughts and emotions onto dolls, social robots have their own agenda.

Jibo arrives amid criticism of tech companies for making their products addictive. Mike Allen at Axios quotes Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, as saying the thought process was “to give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while” in order to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” Jonathan Shieber at TechCrunch profiles startup Dopamine Labs, which “…aims to give any app the same addictive power that Facebook, Zynga, and others have spent millions to perfect.” The company’s Skinner software, named after psychologist B.F. Skinner (who considered free will an illusion), learns what works to improve app usage and obtain returning customers. “If all of that sounds creepy, don’t worry… it is,” writes Shieber.

But Breazeal might see Jibo as a potential antidote. In December 2015, she told Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post that we are addicted to flat screens. Jibo will get you to look up from the screen and interact face-to-face with others in the room. Jibo, she said, “…really keeps you in the physical, real, social world.”

In a recent blog post Breazeal writes, “Looking ahead, I see social robots contributing positively in so many different ways that improve quality of life for all kinds of people.”
But Turkle concludes her Post article by writing that “…it is time to confront the emotional downside of living with the robots of our dreams.”

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