Our phones are designed to connect us, but they can actually make us unhappy by pulling us away from the friends and family sitting right in front of us. At the same time, a third of Americans live alone, opening them up to the mental and physical risks of social isolation.
In response to this emerging social issue, we’re seeing some companies and researchers developing quirky robots designed to put isolated people in touch with their friends and loved ones. Last year, Fuseproject debuted ElliQ, a social bot for seniors. And now, a group of Korean researchers from Yonsei University and Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology are promoting a similar–albeit far, far cuter–approach aimed at users under the age 35. It’s a robot called Fribo.
Fribo is a little, anime-inspired pet that sits on your counter to create what researchers have dubbed a “virtual living space.” The idea behind the bot, which was first spotted by The Verge, is that Fribo spies on you and a few connected friends by listening in on what’s happening in your apartment–and by doing so, it can facilitate communication between the group based on what’s going on.
Unlike Amazon’s Alexa, Fribo has no interest in what you say–it’s not recording your voice at all. Instead, it listens for “living noise,” the environmental sounds like a washing machine running or a microwave turning on that could reveal an innocuous activity. For example, Fribo can hear a front door close and then announce: “Oho! Your friend just opened the door! Did someone work late today?” Fribo’s statement is doing a few things–it’s pointing out that your friend is home, it’s observing that they got home at an odd hour, and it’s using that information to propose a conversation topic, like an icebreaker. If you’d like to react, you can knock three times to show approval–it’s sort of like a Facebook “like”–or you can open up an accompanying texting app to start a conversation.
The researchers ran a small study to test Fribo out, and though just three people–with the average age of 25–used it for four weeks, the early response was quite positive. “[Fribo] helped break the silence and emptiness I felt at home after work. It is a different experience from the TV because it gives information about my friends’ activities,” said one participant. “The robot seems like a living creature.”
“I can imagine what my friend is doing and I feel like we live in the same house, but in another room,” said another participant. “It’s like sharing daily life activities with friends.” The researchers concluded that Fribo did create a virtual coliving experience. People felt like their friends were in the next room, but no one was forced to share a bathroom, or be kept up late by blaring music.
Of course, further study would be necessary to really dig into the psychological effects of a Fribo versus a Facebook–or versus just living with a friend. Could Fribo create similar moments of FOMO when you hear your “roommate” coming home late after a party you weren’t invited to? Does Fribo’s smartphone messaging service actually improve upon the limitations of texting apps like Snapchat or Messenger, which come with their own ill effects? What about the security issues of such data sharing?
Frankly, it’s hard to believe that any robot could be better than a flesh-and-bone friend sitting in the same room. But if we’re already isolated, perhaps it’s better than nothing.