Cynthia Breazeal: Reimagining Robots for the Future

Cynthia Breazeal was working with the Mobile Robots group building a series of robots that would roll over Mars when she had her Eureka moment. We’re putting robots in space. There are robots at the bottom of the ocean, on top of mountains, and inside volcanoes. But why aren’t there robots in our homes?

Breazeal envisioned robots serving as roommates, companions, caretakers, and playmates. She imagined robots that could understand, react to, and replicate complex human communication. These robots would not only emulate human spoken language, they would emulate human body language, tone, and mood in real time.

Breazeal’s first social robot, Kismet, could maintain eye contact, recognize movement, and identify and respond to changing emotions. When Kismet was spoken to in a scolding voice, it lowered its head.

Next, as a consultant with Warner Bros. on Steven Spielberg’s movie, “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” Breazeal introduced a new robot, Leonardo. Leonardo used 60 unique tiny motors to move its eyes, mouths, ears, and arms to create subtle, natural human expressions. Leonardo could recognize familiar faces and could even track people and moving objects using cues from a human companion’s gaze.

The intellectual property behind these robots – and her other inventions – mark a trail of footprints towards more sophisticated social robots.

Breazeal’s most advanced social robot, Jibo, started as a startup crowdfunding campaign project. The project raised $100,000 in just four hours, surpassed $1 million in a week, and finally stopped accepting orders after hitting nearly $2.3 million.

Today, any consumer can order their own Jibo. Jibo can remind you of your dentist appointment or find the closest sandwich shop or alert you if you’re flight is delayed. But Jibo is more than a passive assistant. Jibo greets you by name as you walk into the room, able to learn up to 16 faces and voices. Jibo can sing and dance, play games, tell jokes, and take photos.

  • “Hey Jibo, who am I?”
  • “My result suggests either Michael or Abraham Lincoln. It’s one of those right?”
  • “Hey Jibo, give me a health tip.”
  • “Here’s one. Remember to flatten your back before picking up a heavy robot.”
  • “Hey Jibo, do you like bugs?”
  • “I do like bugs. Except for software bugs, they are bad, bad, bad… I’m kidding.”

There are many things Jibo is yet to learn, but Jibo is constantly learning. Jibo reminds us that innovation is a process of experimenting, gleaning new knowledge, failing and learning from failures to achieve progress.

Today, we play with Jibo while we chat with Siri, we laugh at Alexa’s jokes, and we ask Cortana our questions. There’s a thriving market of personal and recreational intelligent robots, and it all started with Breazeal’s revolutionary work. It also started with innovation policies that balance risks with incentives and encourage people to invest in ideas and bring products to market. Thanks to trailblazers like Breazeal, we can only imagine what ideas will materialize tomorrow.

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