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#437357 Algorithms Workers Can’t See Are ...

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL’s cold, if polite, refusal to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a defining warning about putting too much trust in artificial intelligence, particularly if you work in space.

In the movies, when a machine decides to be the boss (or humans let it) things go wrong. Yet despite myriad dystopian warnings, control by machines is fast becoming our reality.

Algorithms—sets of instructions to solve a problem or complete a task—now drive everything from browser search results to better medical care.

They are helping design buildings. They are speeding up trading on financial markets, making and losing fortunes in micro-seconds. They are calculating the most efficient routes for delivery drivers.

In the workplace, self-learning algorithmic computer systems are being introduced by companies to assist in areas such as hiring, setting tasks, measuring productivity, evaluating performance, and even terminating employment: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid you are being made redundant.”

Giving self‐learning algorithms the responsibility to make and execute decisions affecting workers is called “algorithmic management.” It carries a host of risks in depersonalizing management systems and entrenching pre-existing biases.

At an even deeper level, perhaps, algorithmic management entrenches a power imbalance between management and worker. Algorithms are closely guarded secrets. Their decision-making processes are hidden. It’s a black-box: perhaps you have some understanding of the data that went in, and you see the result that comes out, but you have no idea of what goes on in between.

Algorithms at Work
Here are a few examples of algorithms already at work.

At Amazon’s fulfillment center in south-east Melbourne, they set the pace for “pickers,” who have timers on their scanners showing how long they have to find the next item. As soon as they scan that item, the timer resets for the next. All at a “not quite walking, not quite running” speed.

Or how about AI determining your success in a job interview? More than 700 companies have trialed such technology. US developer HireVue says its software speeds up the hiring process by 90 percent by having applicants answer identical questions and then scoring them according to language, tone, and facial expressions.

Granted, human assessments during job interviews are notoriously flawed. Algorithms,however, can also be biased. The classic example is the COMPAS software used by US judges, probation, and parole officers to rate a person’s risk of re-offending. In 2016 a ProPublica investigation showed the algorithm was heavily discriminatory, incorrectly classifying black subjects as higher risk 45 percent of the time, compared with 23 percent for white subjects.

How Gig Workers Cope
Algorithms do what their code tells them to do. The problem is this code is rarely available. This makes them difficult to scrutinize, or even understand.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the gig economy. Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, and other platforms could not exist without algorithms allocating, monitoring, evaluating, and rewarding work.

Over the past year Uber Eats’ bicycle couriers and drivers, for instance, have blamed unexplained changes to the algorithm for slashing their jobs, and incomes.

Rider’s can’t be 100 percent sure it was all down to the algorithm. But that’s part of the problem. The fact those who depend on the algorithm don’t know one way or the other has a powerful influence on them.

This is a key result from our interviews with 58 food-delivery couriers. Most knew their jobs were allocated by an algorithm (via an app). They knew the app collected data. What they didn’t know was how data was used to award them work.

In response, they developed a range of strategies (or guessed how) to “win” more jobs, such as accepting gigs as quickly as possible and waiting in “magic” locations. Ironically, these attempts to please the algorithm often meant losing the very flexibility that was one of the attractions of gig work.

The information asymmetry created by algorithmic management has two profound effects. First, it threatens to entrench systemic biases, the type of discrimination hidden within the COMPAS algorithm for years. Second, it compounds the power imbalance between management and worker.

Our data also confirmed others’ findings that it is almost impossible to complain about the decisions of the algorithm. Workers often do not know the exact basis of those decisions, and there’s no one to complain to anyway. When Uber Eats bicycle couriers asked for reasons about their plummeting income, for example, responses from the company advised them “we have no manual control over how many deliveries you receive.”

Broader Lessons
When algorithmic management operates as a “black box” one of the consequences is that it is can become an indirect control mechanism. Thus far under-appreciated by Australian regulators, this control mechanism has enabled platforms to mobilize a reliable and scalable workforce while avoiding employer responsibilities.

“The absence of concrete evidence about how the algorithms operate”, the Victorian government’s inquiry into the “on-demand” workforce notes in its report, “makes it hard for a driver or rider to complain if they feel disadvantaged by one.”

The report, published in June, also found it is “hard to confirm if concern over algorithm transparency is real.”

But it is precisely the fact it is hard to confirm that’s the problem. How can we start to even identify, let alone resolve, issues like algorithmic management?

Fair conduct standards to ensure transparency and accountability are a start. One example is the Fair Work initiative, led by the Oxford Internet Institute. The initiative is bringing together researchers with platforms, workers, unions, and regulators to develop global principles for work in the platform economy. This includes “fair management,” which focuses on how transparent the results and outcomes of algorithms are for workers.

Understandings about impact of algorithms on all forms of work is still in its infancy. It demands greater scrutiny and research. Without human oversight based on agreed principles we risk inviting HAL into our workplaces.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437276 Cars Will Soon Be Able to Sense and ...

Imagine you’re on your daily commute to work, driving along a crowded highway while trying to resist looking at your phone. You’re already a little stressed out because you didn’t sleep well, woke up late, and have an important meeting in a couple hours, but you just don’t feel like your best self.

Suddenly another car cuts you off, coming way too close to your front bumper as it changes lanes. Your already-simmering emotions leap into overdrive, and you lay on the horn and shout curses no one can hear.

Except someone—or, rather, something—can hear: your car. Hearing your angry words, aggressive tone, and raised voice, and seeing your furrowed brow, the onboard computer goes into “soothe” mode, as it’s been programmed to do when it detects that you’re angry. It plays relaxing music at just the right volume, releases a puff of light lavender-scented essential oil, and maybe even says some meditative quotes to calm you down.

What do you think—creepy? Helpful? Awesome? Weird? Would you actually calm down, or get even more angry that a car is telling you what to do?

Scenarios like this (maybe without the lavender oil part) may not be imaginary for much longer, especially if companies working to integrate emotion-reading artificial intelligence into new cars have their way. And it wouldn’t just be a matter of your car soothing you when you’re upset—depending what sort of regulations are enacted, the car’s sensors, camera, and microphone could collect all kinds of data about you and sell it to third parties.

Computers and Feelings
Just as AI systems can be trained to tell the difference between a picture of a dog and one of a cat, they can learn to differentiate between an angry tone of voice or facial expression and a happy one. In fact, there’s a whole branch of machine intelligence devoted to creating systems that can recognize and react to human emotions; it’s called affective computing.

Emotion-reading AIs learn what different emotions look and sound like from large sets of labeled data; “smile = happy,” “tears = sad,” “shouting = angry,” and so on. The most sophisticated systems can likely even pick up on the micro-expressions that flash across our faces before we consciously have a chance to control them, as detailed by Daniel Goleman in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence.

Affective computing company Affectiva, a spinoff from MIT Media Lab, says its algorithms are trained on 5,313,751 face videos (videos of people’s faces as they do an activity, have a conversation, or react to stimuli) representing about 2 billion facial frames. Fascinatingly, Affectiva claims its software can even account for cultural differences in emotional expression (for example, it’s more normalized in Western cultures to be very emotionally expressive, whereas Asian cultures tend to favor stoicism and politeness), as well as gender differences.

But Why?
As reported in Motherboard, companies like Affectiva, Cerence, Xperi, and Eyeris have plans in the works to partner with automakers and install emotion-reading AI systems in new cars. Regulations passed last year in Europe and a bill just introduced this month in the US senate are helping make the idea of “driver monitoring” less weird, mainly by emphasizing the safety benefits of preemptive warning systems for tired or distracted drivers (remember that part in the beginning about sneaking glances at your phone? Yeah, that).

Drowsiness and distraction can’t really be called emotions, though—so why are they being lumped under an umbrella that has a lot of other implications, including what many may consider an eerily Big Brother-esque violation of privacy?

Our emotions, in fact, are among the most private things about us, since we are the only ones who know their true nature. We’ve developed the ability to hide and disguise our emotions, and this can be a useful skill at work, in relationships, and in scenarios that require negotiation or putting on a game face.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than one good cry in my car. It’s kind of the perfect place for it; private, secluded, soundproof.

Putting systems into cars that can recognize and collect data about our emotions under the guise of preventing accidents due to the state of mind of being distracted or the physical state of being sleepy, then, seems a bit like a bait and switch.

A Highway to Privacy Invasion?
European regulations will help keep driver data from being used for any purpose other than ensuring a safer ride. But the US is lagging behind on the privacy front, with car companies largely free from any enforceable laws that would keep them from using driver data as they please.

Affectiva lists the following as use cases for occupant monitoring in cars: personalizing content recommendations, providing alternate route recommendations, adapting environmental conditions like lighting and heating, and understanding user frustration with virtual assistants and designing those assistants to be emotion-aware so that they’re less frustrating.

Our phones already do the first two (though, granted, we’re not supposed to look at them while we drive—but most cars now let you use bluetooth to display your phone’s content on the dashboard), and the third is simply a matter of reaching a hand out to turn a dial or press a button. The last seems like a solution for a problem that wouldn’t exist without said… solution.

Despite how unnecessary and unsettling it may seem, though, emotion-reading AI isn’t going away, in cars or other products and services where it might provide value.

Besides automotive AI, Affectiva also makes software for clients in the advertising space. With consent, the built-in camera on users’ laptops records them while they watch ads, gauging their emotional response, what kind of marketing is most likely to engage them, and how likely they are to buy a given product. Emotion-recognition tech is also being used or considered for use in mental health applications, call centers, fraud monitoring, and education, among others.

In a 2015 TED talk, Affectiva co-founder Rana El-Kaliouby told her audience that we’re living in a world increasingly devoid of emotion, and her goal was to bring emotions back into our digital experiences. Soon they’ll be in our cars, too; whether the benefits will outweigh the costs remains to be seen.

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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

#435804 New AI Systems Are Here to Personalize ...

The narratives about automation and its impact on jobs go from urgent to hopeful and everything in between. Regardless where you land, it’s hard to argue against the idea that technologies like AI and robotics will change our economy and the nature of work in the coming years.

A recent World Economic Forum report noted that some estimates show automation could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, while at the same time creating 133 million new roles. While these estimates predict a net positive for the number of new jobs in the coming decade, displaced workers will need to learn new skills to adapt to the changes. If employees can’t be retrained quickly for jobs in the changing economy, society is likely to face some degree of turmoil.

According to Bryan Talebi, CEO and founder of AI education startup Ahura AI, the same technologies erasing and creating jobs can help workers bridge the gap between the two.

Ahura is developing a product to capture biometric data from adult learners who are using computers to complete online education programs. The goal is to feed this data to an AI system that can modify and adapt their program to optimize for the most effective teaching method.

While the prospect of a computer recording and scrutinizing a learner’s behavioral data will surely generate unease across a society growing more aware and uncomfortable with digital surveillance, some people may look past such discomfort if they experience improved learning outcomes. Users of the system would, in theory, have their own personalized instruction shaped specifically for their unique learning style.

And according to Talebi, their systems are showing some promise.

“Based on our early tests, our technology allows people to learn three to five times faster than traditional education,” Talebi told me.

Currently, Ahura’s system uses the video camera and microphone that come standard on the laptops, tablets, and mobile devices most students are using for their learning programs.

With the computer’s camera Ahura can capture facial movements and micro expressions, measure eye movements, and track fidget score (a measure of how much a student moves while learning). The microphone tracks voice sentiment, and the AI leverages natural language processing to review the learner’s word usage.

From this collection of data Ahura can, according to Talebi, identify the optimal way to deliver content to each individual.

For some users that might mean a video tutorial is the best style of learning, while others may benefit more from some form of experiential or text-based delivery.

“The goal is to alter the format of the content in real time to optimize for attention and retention of the information,” said Talebi. One of Ahura’s main goals is to reduce the frequency with which students switch from their learning program to distractions like social media.

“We can now predict with a 60 percent confidence interval ten seconds before someone switches over to Facebook or Instagram. There’s a lot of work to do to get that up to a 95 percent level, so I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s a promising indication that we can work to cut down on the amount of context-switching by our students,” Talebi said.

Talebi repeatedly mentioned his ambition to leverage the same design principles used by Facebook, Twitter, and others to increase the time users spend on those platforms, but instead use them to design more compelling and even addictive education programs that can compete for attention with social media.

But the notion that Ahura’s system could one day be used to create compelling or addictive education necessarily presses against a set of justified fears surrounding data privacy. Growing anxiety surrounding the potential to misuse user data for social manipulation is widespread.

“Of course there is a real danger, especially because we are collecting so much data about our users which is specifically connected to how they consume content. And because we are looking so closely at the ways people interact with content, it’s incredibly important that this technology never be used for propaganda or to sell things to people,” Talebi tried to assure me.

Unsurprisingly (and worrying), using this AI system to sell products to people is exactly where some investors’ ambitions immediately turn once they learn about the company’s capabilities, according to Talebi. During our discussion Talebi regularly cited the now infamous example of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign to run a psychographically targeted persuasion campaign on the US population during the most recent presidential election.

“It’s important that we don’t use this technology in those ways. We’re aware that things can go sideways, so we’re hoping to put up guardrails to ensure our system is helping and not harming society,” Talebi said.

Talebi will surely need to take real action on such a claim, but says the company is in the process of identifying a structure for an ethics review board—one that carries significant influence with similar voting authority as the executive team and the regular board.

“Our goal is to build an ethics review board that has teeth, is diverse in both gender and background but also in thought and belief structures. The idea is to have our ethics review panel ensure we’re building things ethically,” he said.

Data privacy appears to be an important issue for Talebi, who occasionally referenced a major competitor in the space based in China. According to a recent article from MIT Tech Review outlining the astonishing growth of AI-powered education platforms in China, data privacy concerns may be less severe there than in the West.

Ahura is currently developing upgrades to an early alpha-stage prototype, but is already capturing data from students from at least one Ivy League school and a variety of other places. Their next step is to roll out a working beta version to over 200,000 users as part of a partnership with an unnamed corporate client who will be measuring the platform’s efficacy against a control group.

Going forward, Ahura hopes to add to its suite of biometric data capture by including things like pupil dilation and facial flushing, heart rate, sleep patterns, or whatever else may give their system an edge in improving learning outcomes.

As information technologies increasingly automate work, it’s likely we’ll also see rapid changes to our labor systems. It’s also looking increasingly likely that those same technologies will be used to improve our ability to give people the right skills when they need them. It may be one way to address the challenges automation is sure to bring.

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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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