Meet Jibo, the robot that wants to join your family (+video)

An MIT professor has invented Jibo, a social robot that can act as a personal assistant, speak, learn, and interact with people in a 'humanized' fashion. 

By , Staff Writer

"The Jetsons," "Star Wars," and "Wall-E" each showed what it might be like when robots enter the home, becoming our companions, our friends. These, of course, were artistic renderings. The real thing didn't quite exist yet. There wasn't a device that could perform technological functions and act like humans as well – until now. 

Cynthia Breazeal, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has invented Jibo, a robot being marketed as "the world's first family robot."

It's sleekly designed and looks like half of a sphere mounted atop a cone. It's not very big – about 11 inches tall and about six pounds. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in, well, just about everything else. 

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This little gadget comes packed with algorithms to learn and adapt to people's habits. It can communicate in tones and cues closely resembling human interaction. It can take photos and video, and deliver hands-free messages and reminders. It can even read and tell stories. 

"It’s really important for technology to be humanized," Dr. Breazeal told The New York Times

A promotional video for the robot has Jibo cheerily greeting family members as they return home, laughing like a little round friend. 

"He's the world's best cameraman," the video narration says, noting the feature that lets it "intelligently" track faces to take photos. 

"You can talk to him and he'll talk to you back, so you don't have to skip a beat," the narration continues as it shows Jibo giving reminders to a woman as she cooks in the kitchen. 

Breazeal is no stranger to robots with emotion. Her career has been focused on creating "social" robots, machines that can not only make people's lives easier, but can also interact with them in a more natural fashion. Breazeal, who studied with MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks during graduate school, wrote about her passion in her 2003 book "Designing Sociable Robots," published by MIT Press, and consulted for the 2001 Steven Spielberg science fiction movie ''A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,'' the story of a human-like robot with the ability to express love. 

Her interest in the intersection between humanity and technology stems from the same place where most people first encounter robots: science fiction.

"For me, as for many of us who do robotics, I think it is science fiction," she said in a 2003 interview with the New York Times. "My most memorable science fiction experience was 'Star Wars' and seeing R2D2 and C3PO. I fell in love with those robots."

Brazeal, along with her team of engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, are currently spearheading an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Jibo. An initial rollout is scheduled for fall 2015, with a mass consumer version planned for the 2015 holiday season. The robot will cost $499 in the consumer version and $599 for a version that will let developers create apps for a Jibo Store. In theory, once new apps begin appearing in the Jibo store, its functions will continue to expand, similar to mobile apps developed for the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. 

Still, there will be hurdles for the device to overcome, from security concerns to a cultural bias against allowing robots to function as household companions. But Brazeal doesn't seem worried. In her view, robots are simply the next logical step in the way humans interact with the technological world. 

"The next stage in computing, the next wave, is emotion," she told The Times. 

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