Cynthia Breazeal traces her interest in robotics to the first time she saw Star Wars in theaters as a 10-year-old. "Your jaw just drops," she told Fast Company. "In many ways those droids were full-fledged characters; they cared about people. That was what, I think, really sparked my imagination."
George Lucas's fictional characters convinced her that people want to interact with machines as if they are human. At least that's how she interprets her life trajectory now. "I can look back at my life and I can tell you a very logical story, but of course it's never that way when you’re living it," she said.
Looking at her most recent creation, Jibo, it's easy to see a little bit of R2D2 and C3PO in the "world's first family robot." Announced last week, Jibo is "the first personal robot you might actually buy," according to Re/Code's James Temple, who saw it up close, not just in this (rosy) promotional video:
"It's one of the most ambitious and affordable robots for the home that I’ve seen," he added, although the praise is not entirely universal. Time magazine said "it's unclear why you'd actually need," Jibo, which works like Siri but with a better personality and slightly more functionality. Another critic deemed it "just plain odd."
The final verdict on Jibo's utility will have to wait until 2015, when Breazeal on shipping the first batch to developers. Consumer devices will be available in 2016. But the technology fits right into the vision Breazeal has had for social bots since that first Star Wars viewing.
Raised in Livermore, California, Breazeal grew up surrounded by technology and technologists. Her mom worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and her dad worked at Sandia National Lab. Her parents brought home punchcards and some of the first personal computers available. Breazeal wanted to go into medicine when she went off to the University of California at Santa Barbara. But her mother encouraged her to study electrical and computer engineering. It was there that Breazeal first encountered (real) robots.
She soon abandoned her medical aspirations, and decided she wanted to work for NASA as an astronaut. That, too, changed when she went MIT to get a PhD in space robotics. "I had never seen an autonomous robot before," she recalls. At the time, the lab, under the direction of the famed roboticist Rod Brooks, was studying and making mobile robots inspired by insects. "I literally see these robots skirting around the lab, and it was almost as if I had this huge flashback to Star Wars. If we are ever going to see robots like that, it's going to start in a lab just like this, right now, right here."
Breazeal is best known for her robot Kismet, which landed on the cover of Time, among other major publications, in the late '90s. With its big round eyes, furry eyebrows, and red lips, Kismet was the first machine that could respond to human interaction in a human, albeit babyish, way. Kismet can sustain basic conversations with people, respond to commands, and has limited learning capabilities. In the video below, the machinery, like a big metal child, looks sad after getting scolded.
Time called it "the most human robot ever." Although, now it looks more robot than human. The interactions look almost painful compared with the way we interact with robots like Siri today. But Kismet, and the relationship humans developed with it, showed that non-scientists could interface with autonomous robots and, in theory, have valuable, social connections with them.
Breazeal has spent the rest of her career on perfecting that concept. The recognition and resources she received following the success of Kismet allowed Breazeal to expand on those theories. She was offered a professorship at MIT, where she continued to build social robots, including Leonardo, which was called "the most sophisticated social robot in the world today." That was in 2001, and although he was a lot smarter and faster than Kismet, he nevertheless looks like a giant Furby that belongs in Disney World.
The Jibo business is separate from her research at MIT. Breazeal took a leave of absence to pursue the company. But the device came directly and logically out of her last two decades of work. In a 2003 New York Times article, she described her future vision of robot design as "intellectually intriguing and remains true to its technological heritage, but is able to touch us emotionally in the quality of interaction and their responsiveness to us—more like a dance, rather than pushing buttons."
With Jibo, Breazeal ditched the facial features for a white orb with an upbeat voice. Even so, to borrow the words of Time, it's her most human robot yet.
"Jibo is almost like the meta of everything I've learned and all the insights I've had at MIT, and the huge need for technology to go beyond information," she says.
[Images courtesy of Jibo]