Speaking of “Empathic” Robots

Earlier this week I commented on Sherry Turkle’s latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation”.  Among other things, she is not enthusiastic about “empathic” robots which simulate human conversation.

Down the hall at MIT, the Personal Robots Group is pressing ahead, including a start up company, Jibo, “The World’s First Social Robot for the Home”. Erico Guizzo reports that Cynthia Breazeal’s “Jibo, is a little taller than a toaster and shaped like a desk fan. It can recognize faces, understand what people say, and respond in an amiable voice.

Yoiks! Not in my home, thank you ver much. I refer you to Sensei Trukle for chapter and verse about why this is a really, really bad feature set.

Setting aside the creepy and socially destructive “amiability”, what is it for? I’m afraid I’m going to join the chorus of jeers for the whole idea.

Jibo’s purpose is to help busy family members coordinate with one another and communicate with the outside world. In the morning, for example, the robot can remind parents and kids of important events and tasks for the day. You can tell Jibo what you need to accomplish today, and it will update your schedule or to-do list for you while you’re making breakfast. Jibo will also snap photos at parties, read interactive stories to kids, and help grandparents make video calls.

Huh? Why would I want something that does any of these things? I already have dozens of options for reminder services (and I hate them all), in any case, keeping track of important upcoming events is basically what families do, isn’t it? Why would outsourcing that be a good idea, even if it works?

Let me put it this way: instead of “robot” I proposed to install a person who sits in the living room, watches your family, and “helps” family members coordinate and communicate. And takes pictures, reads to your kids, and “helps” grandparents make video calls.

Would you let someone do that? It’s a simulated nanny, innit?

Looking deeper, there is a promotional video that, in the end suggests that “any device that can order Chinese food is a winner.” Well, I wasn’t having any problem ordering Chinese food. Or rather, to the degree that ordering Chinese food is a problem, it is a part of a happy human life. I don’t need or want to outsource this kind of “problem” or even make it “more efficient”. Sheesh.

Breazeal remarks, “[f]or me, the value proposition of things like social robots is that they are not people—they are different from us. Because of that they can complement us. And that is what is really intriguing and valuable.” (I general run away as fast as possible whenever anyone starts talking about “value propositions”, don’t you?)

Huh? “Compliment us?” What unfilled niche in family life does this bot fill? All of the “features” described have been done for millennia by human families. Indeed, the essence of family life is keeping track of each other, and talking with each other. Jibo isn’t augmenting family life, it is displacing human interactions with shoddy robot imitations. This can only weaken and destroy families.


Part of what is going on is a case of “we know how to build it, so that must be what people should want”. Guizzo comments that “Huge subindustries that feed the smartphone and video-game makers are also supplying components to a new generation of home robots whose main purpose is to entertain and inform their owners.” Yup. It’s what we know how to build, so it must be what we should build.

One way to look at it, is that this robot is a really fancy wrapper around conventional personal devices, such as phones and tables. Sigh. The devices that are wrecking our lives by over-engaging with shallow, simulated sociability. Making them even more “engaging” is not really the right idea.

Coming out of MIT, they also will lean heavily on speech processing, both understanding and synthesis. Again, this is as much “what we know how to do” as what the product really needs. Even if it works well (which even the MITers admit is a stretch), is this really what you need to enhance family life? If so, why?

The good news is that this will surely fail commercially. Noone needs it, and it will almost certainly be a very expensive “clippy”, especially if it doesn’t know when to keep its mouth shut.

Hi, I was intelligent, “engaging”, and one of the worst fails in software history.


Robot Wednesday

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