An earlier version of this essay ran on SocialRobotFutures.com. Read it here.
RobotRepublic — Jibo, according to its creator Cynthia Breazeal, is more than a thing.
In an ad promoting its many roles, Jibo is referred to as an educator, entertainer, helper, companion, conversationalist, wingman, cameraman and a “robot with humanity.”
And look at the scenein this ad: The heterosexual, white, suburban middle-class family with a single-family house, a garage, a car, smiling children, and a woman baking in the kitchen harkens back to the 1950s. This robot, it says, will be part of the family and nothing less.
Breazal, who is interested in humanizing technology, remarks that “the way a thing moves actually triggers something in our mind that makes us perceive it as living. Case in point: Jibo’s head, with its motion and face-detecting algorithms, appears to follow human conversations, moves with fluid motions and appears to wake at the sound of its name.
Spliced in the middle of this ad are clips of R2D2 from Star Wars, the nameless robot from Lost in Space, Johnny Five from Short Circuit, Rosie the Robot of the animated series The Jetsons, and WALL-E from the post-apocalyptic 2008 film of the same name.
“We have dreamt of him for years and now he is finally here,” the narrator tells us, as if fiction participates in a technological teleology that necessarily ends in the materialization of supposedly real humanoid robots.
Like the use of other references to fiction in the marketing of technology, these clips animate this new invention. Strip away the fictional lineage that is used to sell this device and Jibo—which looks something like a desk lamp with a black mirror––is in reality a three axis motor with an operating platform, equipped with stereo cameras, motion sensors, speakers, and a touch screen.
Humanizing technology — that is, making it cute and encouraging us to see it as alive– is a marketing trick, sure.
But what does encouraging emotional bonds between humans and machines for profit do for humanity or the planet? These are questions that are not answered by science but are the concern of fictions about artificial people, which explore the desires, hopes, and fears of humanity, and raise questions about what it means to be human unrestricted by the “realities” and limitations of technology.
If the advertisement for Jibo uses fictional references to transform an aluminum shell with wires and chips into “one of the family”––the same technology that is used to develop killer robots––it also attempts to evacuate allegory, simile, metaphor, metonymy and the social and political commentary from the fictional sources it references.
The advertisement presents Jibo as an example of fiction becoming science and sells the fantasy of humans being catered to by a compliant technological servant.
The inserted film images, however, subvert this message. If the retro family in the advertisement has more in common with the bourgeois, consumerist, leisure class of The Jetsons, a TV show that began in the early sixties, where George Jetson works an hour a day and the homemaker, Joan Jetson, lives to shop for clothes and new gadgets.
Make no mistake. Jibo exists in a world that is closer to WALL-E, where obese humans, enslaved by technology and disconnected from one another, float around in space after destroying the earth—now buried under mounds of trash–by their rampant consumerism. So what is the “he” we have “dreamt” of? The line of fictional robots from Rosie to Wall-E suggests more of a nightmare.
Breazeal’s seductive invention is a smart design that facilitates and eases the relationship between humans and their devices, but it simultaneously occludes the more complicated questions that fiction raises about our relationship to technology and the planet.
For RobotRepublic, I’m Teresa Heffernan.