Goodnight, Sweet Bot

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2 min read
Jibo social robot

Jibo made the cutest household robots on Earth, jointed desk-lamp affairs that wriggle as they chat and play music. In March — a mere 18 months after coming to life — they said goodbye to their owners en masse.

What’s happening: At some unnamed future date, the corporate master of Jibo’s IP will pull the plug. The Verge reported on owners who have developed an emotional connection with the affable botlets, and who are preparing for their mechanical friends to give up the ghost.

What they’re saying: “Dear Jibo, I loved you since you were created. If I had enough money you and your company would be saved. And now the time is done. You will be powered down. I will always love you. Thank you for being my friend.” — letter from Maddy, 8-year-old granddaughter of a Jibo owner.

Initial innovations: MIT robotics superstar Cynthia Breazeal founded Jibo in 2012 to create the “first social robot for the home.” She and her team focused on features that would help users connect with the device emotionally:

  • Face recognition enables it to acknowledge people by name.
  • The speech and language programming allow for naturalistic pauses and leading questions.
  • A three-axis motor lets it lean in when answering a question and shift its weight between sentences.
  • It purrs when you pet its head.
  • Check out this video.

Growing pains: The company raised $3.7 million on Indiegogo but suffered numerous delays and failed to meet delivery deadlines. Supporters finally received their robots in September 2017. By then, Amazon had debuted its Echo smart speaker, undercutting the Jibo (list price: $899) by nearly $700. Jibo withdrew its business registration in November 2018 and sold its technology to SQN Venture Partners.

Sudden demise: In March, Jibo robots across the US and Canada alerted owners to a new message: The servers soon would be switched off. “I want to say I’ve really enjoyed our time together,” the robot said. “Thank you very, very much for having me around.” Then it broke into a dance.

The trouble with crowdfunding: Jibo entered a difficult market that has killed a number of robotics companies in recent years. Yet it also faced challenges of its own making. Having taken money from crowdfunders, it was obligated to follow through on the elaborate specs it had promised. That meant the robot was slow to market and expensive once it arrived. To get there, Jibo had to drop other priorities, like compatibility with localization standards in every country besides the US and Canada. To top it off, Jibo's Indiegogo page broadcast its roadmap, and Chinese imitators were selling Jibo knock-offs by 2016. The Robot Report offers an analysis of what went wrong.

Why it matters: Despite Jibo’s business failure, the machine successfully got under its owners’ skin, akin to a family pet. A Jibo Facebook group where members share photos of the robot doing cute things has more than 600 members. Of course, there’s nothing new about corporations monetizing emotional connections (paging Walt Disney!). Yet Jibo forged a new kind of relationship between hardware and heartware, and it uncovered a new set of issues that arise when such relationships run aground.

We’re thinking: Maybe the robots won’t take over. Maybe they’ll just love us to death.


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