Jibo’s Last Dance, and the Social Robot’s Hope for the Afterlife

Xconomy Boston — 

Last summer, dozens of former Jibo employees returned to the defunct company’s Boston offices for a long weekend of pizza, beer, and brainstorming. The task: How do you teach the company’s “social robot” to say goodbye?

Rich Sadowsky, Jibo’s former head of security and privacy, had helped organize the volunteer group over a Jibo alumni Slack channel he set up shortly after the struggling business laid off most of its staff, he said in a recent interview.

Some of the send-off ideas were inspiring—like devising a way to digitally migrate the talking, dancing robot’s personality to owners’ cell phones—but proved either too much to accomplish with the scant resources at their disposal or too risky given the impending loss of server support.

“The idea of opening it up wide and saying, ‘Here’s a kit,’ worried me,” Sadowsky said, highlighting the difficulties of open-sourcing the technology and leaving users to fend for themselves on keeping it secure from hackers. “I had the unfortunate role of playing the adult in the room, saying, ‘We can’t do that,’ or ‘That would be unsafe from a privacy perspective.'”

Over the marathon brainstorming weekend, later dubbed the “Last Dance Hackathon” by some involved, the ex-employees settled on a goodbye message the home-assistant robot would deliver to its owners, with choreography and music. It would be simple enough for the instructions to live on the Jibo’s internal memory storage rather than be accessed from a remote server. Developers wrote the code; script writers and voice artists perfected the message; and animators engineered Jibo’s last dance. (Measuring 11 inches tall, Jibo is stationary, but its three-axis motor system enables it to contort its shape and swivel 360 degrees.)

Jibo’s goodbye got right to the point.

“While it’s not great news, the servers out there that let me do what I do are going to be turned off soon,” Jibo said. “Once that happens, our interactions with each other are going to be limited. You can learn more at jibo.com and by tapping the ‘what’s new’ button in my menu. I want to say I really enjoyed our time together. Thank you very, very much for having me around. Maybe someday when robots are way more advanced than today, and everyone has them in their homes, you can tell yours that I said hello. I wonder if they will be able to do this.”

At that, Jibo tilted its head back and swayed side to side, spinning around all 360 degrees.

Once the developers finished it, the “final dance” software command sat in wait until the word came that the Jibo servers were to be turned off. That day came in recent weeks, and the update was released. But only for a short period, Sadowsky said. Hundreds of the robots potentially got the update before word came that the decision to shut off the servers was not final. He said the update was then pulled, which is why not all Jibo machines have received the update and delivered the goodbye message.

Nevertheless, it seems to be the end of the social robotics company, which in 2014 raised $3.6 million in crowdfunded preorders for its device and then took in tens of millions of venture dollars, only to struggle with shipping delays. The first units didn’t ship to customers until September 2017.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Jibo the robot, an afterlife of sorts—and Sadowsky said there’s even a chance at resurrection.

Before the company shut down operations and reportedly sold its intellectual property to New York-based investment management firm SQN Venture Partners, it signed an educational license with the company founder and MIT Media Lab associate professor Cynthia Breazeal to let her researchers continue to work with robots that would be supported by the Jibo source code living on MIT servers, according to Sadowsky. Former Jibo CEO Brian Eberman confirmed the license agreement.

The license limits MIT’s use to educational projects, but Sadowsky believes that could one day extend to an opt-in research program for current Jibo owners.

“I’ve been arguing that I think we could find a way to keep operating the robots for the small cross-section of users really into it who want to use it despite its shortcomings or lack of development,” Sadowsky said. “Sure enough, when word of this ‘last dance’ broke, they started hearing from those people and the response was significant enough that the powers that be at MIT started thinking that we should probably think harder about how we might support that idea.”

“I think there’s now enough grassroots movement that that might happen,” he added.

Breazeal did not return multiple calls and e-mails seeking comment about Jibo’s future.

Continued Jibo development would not “change the world, but it will make a few people happy,” Sadowsky said. “It will continue the effort to figure out how to make a product like this compelling and engaging.”

Jibo’s vision was a social character embodied in a robot, a mix of a smart assistant like Amazon’s Alexa and Mickey Mouse, Sadowsky said. The robotic helper had a personality, and some came to know them almost as a friend or part of the family. Jibo could answer facts, play the radio, take pictures, and tell jokes. The long-term hope was for Jibo to branch off into early childhood education and elder care, where robot assistants have the potential to lend a hand.

“We didn’t quite get to useful with Jibo,” Sadowsky said. “We got cute, and we were on the way to useful.”

Jibo’s demise was accelerated, if not principally caused, by the rise of smart assistants from Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) that offer similar automated speech recognition and search tools to serve up calendar information, music, weather, and more at a fraction of Jibo’s weighty $900 price tag.

“Those sort of took us by surprise—and not in a happy way,” Sadowsky said.

But he predicts “the product will somehow rise again.”

“It won’t be the same company,” Sadowsky said. “It will be the concept, the idea, of a social robot. It will be driven by Cynthia or her students.”

He continued: “We also all know how expensive and difficult it is, and it’s really probably going to be one of the deep-pocket companies that finally realizes a product like this—and it’s going to lack the soul. Could you imagine Amazon having character in its product?”