This spring a research group from Korea report on a home robot that seeks to address social isolation of young adults . Fribo is similar to many other home assistants such as Alexa, but is specifically networked to other Fribos that reside with people in the same social network. (The network of Fribos overlays the human social network.)
The special feature is that Fribo listens to the activity in the home and certain sounds are transmitted to all the other Fribos. For example, the sound of the refrigerator door is played to other Fribos, offering a low key cue about the activity of the person.
Actually, it’s a little more elaborate: the Fribo actually narrates the cue. The sound of the refrigerator is accompanied by a message such as, “Oh, someone just opened the refrigerator door. I wonder which food your friend is going to have”. (, p. 116)
The idea is that, the network of friends– who live alone– gain an awareness of the presence and activity of each other. It may also encourage more social contact with others.
The “creepy” factor with this product seems obvious to me. Yoiks. But I know that there is a very dramatic difference in attitudes about creepiness among younger people, so who knows?
There are also significant issues with privacy (how much to you trust the filtering?) and security (if one Fribo is hacked, the whole network is probably exposed). I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, myself.
But the field study reported is very interesting for another reason. First, the fact that people were even willing to try this device indicates an interest in this kind of social awareness. In particular, there seems to be an implicit sense of belonging and trust in a group of peers. Not only that, but the participants seem to share similar concerns about the isolation of living alone, and the idea that these kind of cues are a way of feeling connected. The study also suggests that being aware of others stimulates more contact, such as phone calls.
I have to say that the reports of the users experiences don’t resonate with my own experience. Aside from the obvious digital-nativism of the young users, there seems to be a definitely cultural factor, i.e., young adults in Korea. There is a level of mutual trust and solidarity among the users that I’m not sure is universal. If so, then Fribo might be a hit in Korea, but a flop in the US, for instance.
By the way, the users refer to how quite their one-person apartment is. My own experience is that even living alone there is plenty of noise from neighbors, for better or worse. If anything, there is probably way to much awareness of strangers in most living spaces. Deliberately adding in awareness of your friends might or might not be an attractive feature, depending on just how much other “awareness” there is.
If my speculation is correct, then this is an interesting example of using ubiquitous digital technology in a culturally specific manner. As the researchers suggest, it would be very interesting to test this hypothesis by replicating the study in other places in the world.
Finally, I have to point out that if what you want to do is achieve a sense of joint living, it is always possible to live together.
A group house or dormitory could provide awareness of others, as well as even easier opportunities to socialize. Why not explore alternative living arrangements, rather than install intrusive digital systems in isolated units? This would make another interesting comparison condition for future studies.
- Evan Ackerman, Fribo: A Robot for People Who Live Alone, in IEEE Spectrum – Home Robotics. 2018. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/fribo-a-robot-for-people-who-live-alone
- Kwangmin Jeong, Jihyun Sung, Hae-Sung Lee, Aram Kim, Hyemi Kim, Chanmi Park, Yuin Jeong, JeeHang Lee, and iJnwoo Kim, Fribo: A Social Networking Robot for Increasing Social Connectedness through Sharing Daily Home Activities from Living Noise Data, in Tthe 2018 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. 2018: Chicago. p. 114-122. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3171254