Tag Archives: emotional

#437157 A Human-Centric World of Work: Why It ...

Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.

The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.

To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.

Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.

What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.

We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.

Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.

“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”

Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.

1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.

2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.

3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?

4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?

5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.

Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”

One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.

But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.

In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”

Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.

Image Credit: www_slon_pics from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436190 What Is the Uncanny Valley?

Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?

Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.

By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.

Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.

Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.

Image: Masahiro Mori

The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.

In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:

I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.

Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:

One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:

“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”

Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.

1. Telenoid

Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR

Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.

2. Diego-san

Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2

Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.

“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”

​3. Geminoid HI

Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro

Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.

4. Sophia

Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images

Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.

5. Anthropomorphized felines

The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.

Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?

Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.

Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:

Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.

Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.

“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”

How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.

To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.

For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”

But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436184 Why People Demanded Privacy to Confide ...

This is part four of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

Between 1964 and 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a German American computer scientist at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, developed the first-ever chatbot [PDF].

While there were already some rudimentary digital language generators in existence—programs that could spit out somewhat coherent lines of text—Weizenbaum’s program was the first designed explicitly for interactions with humans. The user could type in some statement or set of statements in their normal language, press enter, and receive a response from the machine. As Weizenbaum explained, his program made “certain kinds of natural-language conversation between man and computer possible.”

He named the program Eliza after Eliza Doolittle, the working-class hero of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion who learns how to talk with an upper-class accent. The new Eliza was written for the 36-bit IBM 7094, an early transistorized mainframe computer, in a programming language that Weizenbaum developed called MAD-SLIP.

Because computer time was a valuable resource, Eliza could only be run via a time-sharing system; the user interacted with the program remotely via an electric typewriter and printer. When the user typed in a sentence and pressed enter, a message was sent to the mainframe computer. Eliza scanned the message for the presence of a keyword and used it in a new sentence to form a response that was sent back, printed out, and read by the user.

To encourage ongoing dialogue, Weizenbaum designed Eliza to simulate the type of conversational style used by a Rogerian psychoanalyst. The program would take something the user said and reflect it back with a question, as can be seen in the example below. (Notice how the program takes keywords like “boyfriend” and “depressed” and re-uses them.)

Human: Men are all alike.

Computer: IN WHAT WAY?

Human: They're always bugging us about something or other.

Computer: CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?

Human: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Computer: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE

Human: He says I'm depressed much of the time.

Computer: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED

Human: It's true. I am unhappy.

Weizenbaum chose this mode of dialogue for Eliza because it gave the impression that the computer understood what was being said without having to offer anything new to the conversation. It created the illusion of comprehension and engagement in a mere 200 lines of code.

To test Eliza’s capacity to engage an interlocutor, Weizenbaum invited students and colleagues into his office and let them chat with the machine while he looked on. He noticed, with some concern, that during their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm. They would open up to the machine and confess problems they were facing in their lives and relationships.

During their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm.

Even more surprising was that this sense of intimacy persisted even after Weizenbaum described how the machine worked and explained that it didn’t really understand anything that was being said. Weizenbaum was most troubled when his secretary, who had watched him build the program from scratch over many months, insisted that he leave the room so she could talk to Eliza in private.

For Weizenbaum, this experiment with Eliza made him question an idea that Alan Turing had proposed in 1950 about machine intelligence. In his paper, entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing suggested that if a computer could conduct a convincingly human conversation in text, one could assume it was intelligent—an idea that became the basis of the famous Turing Test.

But Eliza demonstrated that convincing communication between a human and a machine could take place even if comprehension only flowed from one side: The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people. Weizenbaum called this the Eliza effect, and believed it was a type of “delusional thinking” that humanity would collectively suffer from in the digital age. This insight was a profound shock for Weizenbaum, and one that came to define his intellectual trajectory over the next decade.

The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people.

In 1976, he published Computing Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation [PDF], which offered a long meditation on why people are willing to believe that a simple machine might be able to understand their complex human emotions.

In this book, he argues that the Eliza effect signifies a broader pathology afflicting “modern man.” In a world conquered by science, technology, and capitalism, people had grown accustomed to viewing themselves as isolated cogs in a large and uncaring machine. In such a diminished social world, Weizenbaum reasoned, people had grown so desperate for connection that they put aside their reason and judgment in order to believe that a program could care about their problems.

Weizenbaum spent the rest of his life developing this humanistic critique of artificial intelligence and digital technology. His mission was to remind people that their machines were not as smart as they were often said to be. And that even though it sometimes appeared as though they could talk, they were never really listening.

This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post described Andrey Markov and Claude Shannon’s painstaking efforts to create statistical models of language for text generation. Come back next Monday for part five, “In 2016, Microsoft’s Racist Chatbot Revealed the Dangers of Conversation.”

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436149 Blue Frog Robotics Answers (Some of) Our ...

In September of 2015, Buddy the social home robot closed its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign more than 600 percent over its funding goal. A thousand people pledged for a robot originally scheduled to be delivered in December of 2016. But nearly three years later, the future of Buddy is still unclear. Last May, Blue Frog Robotics asked for forgiveness from its backers and announced the launch of an “equity crowdfunding campaign” to try to raise the additional funding necessary to deliver the robot in April of 2020.

By the time the crowdfunding campaign launched in August, the delivery date had slipped again, to September 2020, even as Blue Frog attempted to draw investors by estimating that sales of Buddy would “increase from 2000 robots in 2020 to 20,000 in 2023.” Blue Frog’s most recent communication with backers, in September, mentions a new CTO and a North American office, but does little to reassure backers of Buddy that they’ll ever be receiving their robot.

Backers of the robot are understandably concerned about the future of Buddy, so we sent a series of questions to the founder and CEO of Blue Frog Robotics, Rodolphe Hasselvander.

We’ve edited this interview slightly for clarity, but we should also note that Hasselvander was unable to provide answers to every question. In particular, we asked for some basic information about Blue Frog’s near-term financial plans, on which the entire future of Buddy seems to depend. We’ve left those questions in the interview anyway, along with Hasselvander’s response.

1. At this point, how much additional funding is necessary to deliver Buddy to backers?
2. Assuming funding is successful, when can backers expect to receive Buddy?
3. What happens if the fundraising goal is not met?
4. You estimate that sales of Buddy will increase 10x over three years. What is this estimate based on?

Rodolphe Hasselvander: Regarding the questions 1-4, unfortunately, as we are fundraising in a Regulation D, we do not comment on prospect, customer data, sales forecasts, or figures. Please refer to our press release here to have information about the fundraising.

5. Do you feel that you are currently being transparent enough about this process to satisfy backers?
6. Buddy’s launch date has moved from April 2020 to September 2020 over the last four months. Why should backers remain confident about Buddy’s schedule?

Since the last newsletter, we haven’t changed our communication, the backers will be the first to receive their Buddy, and we plan an official launch in September 2020.

7. What is the goal of My Buddy World?

At Blue Frog, we think that matching a great product with a big market can only happen through continual experimentation, iteration and incorporation of customer feedback. That’s why we created the forum My Buddy World. It has been designed for our Buddy Community to join us, discuss the world’s first emotional robot, and create with us. The objective is to deepen our conversation with Buddy’s fans and users, stay agile in testing our hypothesis and validate our product-market fit. We trust the value of collaboration. Behind Buddy, there is a team of roboticists, engineers, and programmers that are eager to know more about our consumers’ needs and are excited to work with them to create the perfect human/robot experience.

8. How is the current version of Buddy different from the 2015 version that backers pledged for during the successful crowdfunding campaign, in both hardware and software?

We have completely revised some parts of Buddy as well as replaced and/or added more accurate and reliable components to ensure we fully satisfy our customers’ requirements for a mature and high-quality robot from day one. We sourced more innovative components to make sure that Buddy has the most up-to-date technologies such as adding four microphones, a high def thermal matrix, a 3D camera, an 8-megapixel RGB camera, time-of-flight sensors, and touch sensors.
If you want more info, we just posted an article about what is Buddy here.

9. Will the version of Buddy that ships to backers in 2020 do everything that that was shown in the original crowdfunding video?

Concerning the capabilities of Buddy regarding the video published on YouTube, I confirm that Buddy will be able to do everything you can see, like patrol autonomously and secure your home, telepresence, mathematics applications, interactive stories for children, IoT/smart home management, face recognition, alarm clock, reminder, message/photo sharing, music, hands free call, people following, games like hide and seek (and more). In addition, everyone will be able to create their own apps thanks to the “BuddyLab” application.

10. What makes you confident that Buddy will be successful when Jibo, Kuri, and other social robots have not?

Consumer robotics is a new market. Some people think it is a tough one. But we, at Blue Frog Robotics, believe it is a path of learning, understanding, and finding new ways to serve consumers. Here are the five key factors that will make Buddy successful.

1) A market-fit robot

Blue Frog Robotics is a consumer-centric company. We know that a successful business model and a compelling fit to market Buddy must come up from solving consumers’ frustrations and problems in a way that’s new and exciting. We started from there.

By leveraged existing research and syndicated consumer data sets to understand our customers’ needs and aspirations, we get that creating a robot is not about the best tech innovation and features, but always about how well technology becomes a service to one’s basic human needs and assets: convenience, connection, security, fun, self-improvement, and time. To answer to these consumers’ needs and wants, we designed an all-in-one robot with four vital capabilities: intelligence, emotionality, mobility, and customization.

With his multi-purpose brain, he addresses a broad range of needs in modern-day life, from securing homes to carrying out his owners’ daily activities, from helping people with disabilities to educating children, from entertaining to just becoming a robot friend.

Buddy is a disruptive innovative robot that is about to transform the way we live, learn, utilize information, play, and even care about our health.
2) Endless possibilities

One of the major advantages of Buddy is his adaptability. Beyond to be adorable, playful, talkative, and to accompany anyone in their daily life at home whether you are comfortable with technology or not, he offers via his platform applications to engage his owners in a wide range of activities. From fitness to cooking, from health monitoring to education, from games to meditation, the combination of intelligence, sensors, mobility, multi-touch panel opens endless possibilities for consumers and organizations to adapt their Buddy to their own needs.
3) An affordable price

Buddy will be the first robot combining smart, social, and mobile capabilities and a developed platform with a personality to enter the U.S. market at affordable price.

Our competitors are social or assistant robots but rarely both. Competitors differentiate themselves by features: mobile, non-mobile; by shapes: humanoid or not; by skills: social versus smart; targeting a specific domain like entertainment, retail assistant, eldercare, or education for children; and by price. Regarding our six competitors: Moorebot, Elli-Q, and Olly are not mobile; Lynx and Nao are in toy category; Pepper is above $10k targeting B2B market; and finally, Temi can’t be considered an emotional robot.
Buddy remains highly differentiated as an all-in-one, best of his class experience, covering the needs for social interactions and assistance of his owners at each stage of their life at an affordable price.

The price range of Buddy will be between US $1700 and $2000.

4) A winning business model

Buddy’s great business model combines hardware, software, and services, and provides game-changing convenience for consumers, organizations, and developers.

Buddy offers a multi-sided value proposition focused on three vertical markets: direct consumers, corporations (healthcare, education, hospitality), and developers. The model creates engagement and sustained usage and produces stable and diverse cash flow.
5) A Passion for people and technology

From day one, we have always believed in the power of our dream: To bring the services and the fun of an emotional robot in every house, every hospital, in every care house. Each day, we refuse to think that we are stuck or limited; we work hard to make Buddy a reality that will help people all over the world and make them smile.

While we certainly appreciate Hasselvander’s consistent optimism and obvious enthusiasm, we’re obligated to point out that some of our most important questions were not directly answered. We haven’t learned anything that makes us all that much more confident that Blue Frog will be able to successfully deliver Buddy this time. Hasselvander also didn’t address our specific question about whether he feels like Blue Frog’s communication strategy with backers has been adequate, which is particularly relevant considering that over the four months between the last two newsletters, Buddy’s launch date slipped by six months.

At this point, all we can do is hope that the strategy Blue Frog has chosen will be successful. We’ll let you know if as soon as we learn more.

[ Buddy ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435742 This ‘Useless’ Social Robot ...

The recent high profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with—making a robot that can autonomous interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.

One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kicksterter for $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.

Kiki’s Kickstarter video is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign:

We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:

Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
Depending on how your treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
Everything Kiki does runs on-board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real-time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.

It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic co-founder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?

Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got cancelled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also cancelled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.

“Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless”
—Mita Yun, Zoetic

You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo—why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?

I thought Jibo was great. It had a special magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.

Can you elaborate on “completely useless?”

I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around, even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.

I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.

What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?

The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.

We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki is will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki is designed to be “vulnerable,” and it needs you to take care of it so it can “grow up into a good personality robot,” according to its creators.

That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.

It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.

How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?

Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotional-driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get be connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.

Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?

Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.

For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express in four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.

There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki’s creators are hoping that, with an emotionally engaging robot, it will be easier for people to get attached to it and willing to spend time taking care of it.

A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.

I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.

I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.

Photo: Zoetic

The team behind Kiki paid particular attention to its eyes, and designed the robot to always face the person that it is interacting with.

Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?

Kiki is definitely not human, we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.

I feel like Kiki is probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.

What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?

When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.

There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.

While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.

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