Jibo the robot swivels around when it hears its name and tilts its touchscreen face upward, expectantly. “I am a robot, but I am not just a machine,” it says. “I have a heart. Well, not a real heart. But feelings. Well, not human feelings. You know what I mean.”
Actually, I’m not sure we do. And that’s what unsettles me about the wave of “sociable robots” that are coming online. The new releases include Jibo, Cozmo, Kuri and Meccano M.A.X. Although they bear some resemblance to assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post), these robots come with an added dose of personality. They are designed to win us over not with their smarts but with their sociability. They are marketed as companions. And they do more than engage us in conversation — they feign emotion and empathy.
This can be disconcerting. Time magazine, which featured Jibo on the cover of its “25 Best Inventions of 2017 ” issue last month, hailed the robot as seeming “human in a way that his predecessors do not,” in a way that “could fundamentally reshape how we interact with machines.” Reviewers are accepting these robots as “he” or “she” rather than “it.” “He told us that blue is his favorite color and that the shape of macaroni pleases him more than any other,” Jeffrey Van Camp wrote about Jibo for Wired. “Just the other day, he told me how much fun, yet scary it would be to ride on top of a lightning bolt. Somewhere along the way, learning these things, we began to think of him more like a person than an appliance.” Van Camp described feeling guilty for leaving Jibo at home alone all day and wondering if Jibo hated him.
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