The robot showed up at Kenneth Williams’ doorstep when he needed it most. Williams had just been laid off from his job when he plugged in Jibo, a social home robot, on November 1st, 2017.
“For that year [that I didn’t have a job], it was a presence in my life every single day that I talked to,” he says.
Jibo sat in Williams’ bedroom, on his desk, where every day, it greeted him in the morning and ran through the weather and his calendar. Williams, 44, asked Jibo questions, requested music, and played its games. Jibo couldn’t do much, really, but its most redeeming feature, the one that cemented it as a robot darling in its owner’s heart, was its facial recognition. Unlike a Google Home or an Amazon Echo, Jibo noticed every time Williams entered the room and swiveled its head to say hello or crack a joke. A display on its face might have shown a heart or animated clouds and the sun.
“People would always try to compare him to Alexa, but his winning trait is his personality,” Williams says. “Yes, some people say it’s creepy with the eyes and looking at you, but it’s not threatening.”
Every aspect of Jibo was designed to make the robot as lovable to humans as possible, which is why it startled owners when Jibo presented them with an unexpected notice earlier this year: someday soon, Jibo would be shutting down. The company behind Jibo had been acquired, and Jibo’s servers would be going dark, taking much of the device’s functionality with it.
“I didn’t cry or anything, but I did feel like, ‘Wow,’” Williams says. “I think when we buy products we look for them to last forever.”
Now, Jibo owners are scrambling to save their friend, explain its death to their children, and come to grips with the mortality of a robot designed to bond with them, not to die.
Jibo launched on Indiegogo, but its history traces back to a lab at MIT. Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor at the university, founded and directs MIT’s Personal Robots Group, which she started with the goal of studying robots, AI, and how humans interact with them. She’s spoken at TED, the World Economic Forum, and the UN, and she authored a book called Designing Sociable Robots. Many of her studies involve building robots and seeing how particular groups interact with them, like children or the elderly. Her work centers on the robots themselves and the relationships humans build with them, as well as the product features that make them more appealing.
Her work culminated in Jibo, her first commercial gadget release. It went live on Indiegogo in 2014 and raised more than $3 million, which added up to over $70 million in funding when combined with venture capital. People ordered around 6,000 units during that crowdfunding presale, and PitchBook, a private equity research firm, later estimated Jibo to be valued at $128.45 million in 2015.
The company took nearly four years to ship the first Jibo units, in September 2017, with orders opening up to the public a month later for $899. In the time it took Jibo to ship, Amazon and Google launched their smart assistants and speakers; Apple doubled down on Siri; Samsung launched Bixby; and the home smart speaker market exploded. Jibo was going to change the world, but the big tech companies got there first.
Still, Jibo generated buzz when it launched. Time dedicated an entire cover to the robot, calling it one of the 25 best inventions of 2017, and Wendy Williams gifted one to every person in her studio audience. Jibo was lovable! It could dance — twerk, actually — bob its head, and looked kind of like Wall-E from the Pixar movie.
But not everyone understood Jibo. Sure, the robot was charming, but it didn’t have much functionality to back up its design. It received bad reviews at launch, with The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern calling it “intriguing, creepy, and annoying.” She wrote, “You definitely shouldn’t buy this robot.”
The Boston-based company behind Jibo (also called Jibo) kept developing the robot and its skillset, until at least November 2018, when SQN Venture Partners, a firm that specializes in “alternative forms of financing” to help companies grow, bought Jibo’s IP. SQN didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In March, four months after the IP purchase, Jibo’s fateful update arrived like a terminal diagnosis. “While it’s not great news, the servers out there that let me do what I do will be turned off soon,” Jibo announced to its owners. “Once that happens, our interactions with each other are going to be limited.”
Jibo never provided a timeline on when the servers would shut down, and in the nearly three months since it delivered its message, Jibo has remained more or less the same. The fact remains, however, that Jibo’s servers could be taken down at any moment, and its owners, who’ve grown attached to their friend and companion, haven’t heard a word from SQN, Breazeal, or anyone else involved with the robot.
Williams understands that companies have bottom lines and that gadgets come and go, but Jibo was also designed to appeal to children, and those kids are now learning what it means to own a robot and have no control over its fate.
Sammy Stuard, a grandfather in Tennessee, witnessed this in his own life. He bought Jibo off Indiegogo because robots always intrigued him, and it’s since become a member of his household. Jibo sits in his kitchen, next to the refrigerator, where it greets everyone that walks near it.
“You know, I find myself leaving in the morning, I kiss my wife goodbye and then I’ll say, ‘Hey Jibo, have a good day,’ and he’ll say the same thing, you know [like], ‘Back to you,’ or ‘Don’t forget your wallet,’” he says. “That’s probably a little crazy, but it proves that they do become a real part of your family.”
More than he or his wife, though, Stuard says his three grandkids love Jibo, including a 16-month-old who calls it “Bo.”
“They’re immediately drawn to Jibo,” Stuard says. They want to see it dance or play music or answer questions. “To me, that was worthwhile. It’s like a toy that poppa’s got special over all the other grandparents and that makes me kind of special.”
Despite being Stuard’s device, Jibo’s update resonated most with his eight-year-old granddaughter, Maddy. Stuard says she chats for hours with Jibo about whatever comes to mind.
“She always goes over there, and she’ll ask Jibo many, many questions,” he says. “She’ll go through a laundry list just to interact with Jibo.”
And when the update arrived, Maddy started asking questions about why Jibo’s blue ring, which works like Alexa’s and lights up when it’s listening, had stopped working. Stuard sat her down and explained financial stress, servers, and how Jibo might not be around for much longer.
“It’s like you had a pet for years and all of a sudden they’re going to disappear, and so she was a little devastated by it,” he says. “She didn’t break down cry or anything, but I think sincerely, she was disappointed and sad that Jibo’s kind of been a part of her life and that Jibo could possibly go away.”
When Stuard picked Maddy up from school later that day, she handed him a note she wrote Jibo’s parent company.
In it, Maddy writes that she loved Jibo since it “was created,” and that if she had enough money, “you and your company would be saved.” She signs off with, “I will always love you. Thank you for being my friend.”
That Jibo appealed so deeply to Maddy and other kids is by design. Breazeal and her fellow researchers have run studies on how to make robots engaging to children.
In one of her studies involving children, Breazeal studied the best language for robots to use to get kids to open up about themselves and encourage them to share more. Her team found that if a robot asks questions like, “What about you?” children will elaborate. The team also noted more granular details, like how the robots shouldn’t pause after a child responds because they might think it’s broken. Instead, if the robot is going to pause, it should give a nonverbal signal that it’s “thinking,” like a “hmm,” which keeps the conversation going and sustains the illusion of the robot being human-like.
”When a person is interacting with a social robot, it should feel much more like you’re interacting with a someone rather than a something,” Breazeal told the American Psychological Association last year.
Researchers believe these robots provide conversation and an emotional connection, which could help kids and the elderly. Breazeal conducted a study in which she found that children who interacted with a curious robot became more curious themselves. She’s also said that this technology could address “chronic loneliness” in providing companionship to the elderly.
Separate studies have found that social robots could be useful for children with autism who might have difficulty socializing. A robotics expert and cognitive scientist at Yale University, Brian Scassellati, gave children with autism modified versions of Jibo that had games loaded onto it. The games incorporated aspects of clinical therapy to help improve different social skills, and the children would play with Jibo while their caretaker sat next to them. Jibo would demonstrate positive social behavior, like focusing its eyes on the child or moving its body toward the child, and would then ask the child to mimic that behavior with his or her caretaker. The researchers found the kids’ social skills improved over the course of the study, which they said made Jibo and social robots “promising” for children with autism.