Say hello to Jibo, the countertop robot

Jibo, the first social robot for the home, made the cover of Time Magazine’s “25 Best Inventions of 2017” in November. Chuan-Che “Jeff” Huang, who is pursuing a PhD in human-computer interaction at the School of Information (UMSI), worked in the summer of 2017 on the team that developed the robot’s artificial intelligence (AI).

Jibo is an animated countertop robot who can express himself through movements. He boasts face-recognition technology and can greet you by name when you enter a room. He plays and dances to music and can, of course, answer a multitude of questions.

“Jibo is highly personalized,” says Jeff, who earned his master’s degree in human-computer interaction from UMSI in 2013.  “Jibo is also proactive. When you come home, Alexa doesn’t talk to you. Jibo can see youand greet you.  For example, he might say 'Happy New Year.' This proactive quality can create delightful moments in your everyday life."

Jibo is programmed to be engaging.

“Jibo is designed to be a companion, an assistant at home,” he says. Research has shown that a more engaging robot like Jibo, able to interact throughout the day, could support many important applications -- such as those in the healthcare domain -- more effectively than computers or smartphones.

Jibo has been a few years in the making. The company launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. After three years of delays, Jibo was finally delivered for sale in November. The price tag: $899.

“It was a very complex product to design,” says Jeff, who ordered his Jibo in 2015 and received his robot in late fall of 2017.

Jibo, he says, is the most complex consumer product to date. The robot has two cameras in front; one is for visual perception and the other is for taking pictures.  Jibo also has touch sensors and six microphones to identify and recognize voices. Three motors tilted at different angles are used to enable Jibo's lively movements.

“Jibo was highly relevant to research that I’ve done,” says Jeff, who is passionate about designing and developing intelligent interactive systems. “I’ve always been very interested to see how you push research projects into the hands of a larger population -- how you realize the idea to make a bigger impact. I wanted to join the Jibo team to better learn about the process.”

While Jibo has its limitations, the future looks bright.

“Jibo is still the first version and it's constantly being updated. It took the iPhone four years to become more sophisticated and widely adopted,” he says. “A similar thing needs to happen with social robots.”

Such robots, he predicts, could eventually be used to provide assistance to people with special needs. “Jibo would be a great companion for the elderly. They might need a reminder to take their medications. Or it could do the same for people with chronic diseases,” he says.

Education applications, such as storytelling for children, also are possibilities.

About the future of robots, Jeff says: “I think there are two kinds of futures. One is more mainstream sci-fi robots. Robots know a lot of things and almost become human. That’s not the future I’m excited about, given current technology constraints.

“I’m excited about robots as limited but useful companions at home. They’ll have limited capabilities but provide you with important and meaninful benefits. I think in five to ten years, robots like Jibo will be much more prevalent and can create a positive impact on our everyday lives.”

Jibo pays a visit to NBC's Today's coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show on January 9, 2018.

Posted January 10, 2018