Health Robots, Talking Dolls, and Handy Home Helpers

By Joyce Deuley

A few months ago, our VP of Marketing, Sara Brown, posted a blog about the new talking Barbie, that has the capabilities to record conversations and build up a vocabulary in order to communicate with children, creating the ultimate relationship between child and doll (Read More Here). Now, Toshiba has released its signing humanoid robot, Chihira, and Sensory has teamed up with Jibo, a social robot for the home.

We have been fascinated for decades with the idea of mechanical helpers, from antique automatons to these modern, more intelligent versions which are bringing our ideas to the brink of reality. The IoT is bridging the gap between what we’ve been dreaming of and what we’re capable of doing. The power of cloud technologies, paired with embedded deep speech recognition capabilities, and other sensory-type abilities, are expanding the horizons on what is possible in terms of the human to robot relationship.

Jibo, for instance, is the first social robot for the home, or at least that’s what the corporate video is claiming. Not just a tool, like most of our devices, but a true member of the family—he can read interactive stories with children, take photos at family gatherings, offer personalized reminders, as well as manage in-home lighting and order takeout for you when you come home. Sensory supplied Jibo with their TrulyNatural speech technology in order to improve robotic speech recognition capabilities, and it seems to have worked. Jibo is meant to be an integrative, friendly helper and manager, making life easier and more fun. Jibo has already received over $2 million in crowdfunding and is the creation of Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and director of the Personal Robot Group at the MIT Media Lab. While Jibo is less than a foot tall and is pretty adorable, I have to admit my hesitancy to recognize him—it—as a member of the family and not a useful tool.

Toshiba has also thought along similar, though more elaborate, lines—creating robots meant to help and assist people, but as close to being human as possible. Their humanoid robot, Chihira, stands at about 5’5” and has a waxy looking synthetic casing that looks near-to-human skin. The goal is to make her as human looking as possible in order to keep the creepiness level down. According to the Uncanny Valley, 80% human-like isn’t enough—things start to get pretty weird if it isn’t spot on. Apparently, psychologically, we can handle things that are definitely not human, but when it’s human-like, we can’t handle things that are obviously off. Many spectators have been fooled by Chihira’s appearance, which is mostly the point. While the robot is currently being used as a receptionist at the Mitsukoshi department at Toshiba in Tokyo, there are other plans for Chihira and her “sisters”. For instance, one of her sisters can use sign language as a means to communicate with homebound patients that can transmit patient data over the cloud to doctors at the hospital. This could do potentially do wonders to improve remote healthcare, as well as patient recovery rates.

Whether we’re talking about talking dolls, nifty home-helpers, or near-human robots, it is clear that reality is catching up with our imaginations. And soon, we won’t need to worry about the Uncanny Valley—we’ll have the materials and technologies in place to have humanoid robots that can fool everyone, as well as our own little Jibo’s that come standard in the home, or at least becomes so common it’s like we’ve always had them.