Shooting the Breeze About Social Robots

Here’s you lunchbox, Billy! — SOURCE REDDIT.COM

Last week SpeechTek 2016 happened in Washington, DC. SpeechTek attracts people interested in speech technology, voice user interfaces, virtual assistants, chatbots, and more such geeky stuff.

I had the good fortune to be invited to participate on a keynote panel. The panel topic was: “The Social Impact of Conversing Robots.”

Is this robot conversing? Dunno, but it looks pretty cool. — SOURCE WWW.REDDIT.COM

You can’t find many topics better than that one. I was joined on the panel by Peter Krogh, Designer at Jibo, and Leor Grebler, CEO and co-founder at UCIC. Besides having impressive resumes, both Peter and Leor are great people who are enthusiastic about their work and the possibilities of social robots to positively impact our lives.

Jim Larson, co-program chair of the SpeechTek conference, did a great job moderating the panel. We discussed lots of topics, but the theme of opportunities and challenges kept cropping up.

Social robots hold so much promise, but there are also risks that we need to be aware of and manage. Here’s a brief overview of some of our discussion.

What’s a Social Robot?

We all had different definitions. For me, a social robot is first and foremost a companion. Yes, it’s smart, learns, has the ability to understand us and talk. It can perform all sorts of tasks on our behalf. But we have to be able to relate to it and feel like it can relate to us too.

These are “creatures” that will live with us in our homes, or that we’ll talk to in our cars or through our “hearables.” They’ll take different shapes, or might not have a physical presence at all. But we’ll want to feel like they care about us.

How to Design a Social Robot?

Peter Krogh talked about how at Jibo they’re very focused on building a “character.” The character has its own distinct personality. The hope is that people will find Jibo likable and treat him like a member of the family.

You have to admit — Jibo is a cute little guy.

Designing a social robot means making choices about its voice, the kinds of things it says, how it reacts if it doesn’t understand you, and lots of other things it can do to keep the illusion of its character intact.

Hey Robot, How Was Your Day?

People are perfectly happy talking to bots to get things done. We use voice commands to do search, ask about the weather, set calendar appointments, buy pizzas. The list goes on.

But will we ever sit around and, alluding back to the title of this post, shoot the breeze with a robot?

I think the answer is yes.

Bots will get a lot better at holding conversations. They’ll become “stateful” and remember what we’re talking about from one sentence to the next. They’ll also have interesting stories and anecdotes to tell us.

Where will those stories come from?

I’m hoping they’ll come from independent creators and other real people. Social robots will collect great human interest stories from people across the globe and share them with us.

We’re building a system at to support this vision. Right now, we’re authoring most of the content ourselves. We’re working on several interactive children’s story skills for Alexa to tell through the Amazon Echo.

Those of us on the panel were also optimistic about the educational value of social robots. Our robot companions will be able to teach us things, like foreign languages, math, or anything we have a desire to learn.

Leggo My Bot!

How will a social robot impact family dynamics? It could improve communication by taking and relaying messages. It could even act as intermediary in giving reminders. If it’s the robot telling you not to forget to take out the garbage, nobody in the family has to nag.

But could the robot pick favorites (like the family dog), lavishing attention on the person who interacts with it most while turning a cold shoulder to the rest of the family?

Such quirks are probably easy enough to avoid through programming. But some family members might like the robot more than others. I know that in my own household, not everyone shares equal fondness for Alexa. If some people like the robot and others don’t, will it be a source of friction?

What about the opposite situation: family members “fighting” over access to the robot?

Daddy, Billy won’t let me play with Jibo!
Billy, you’ve been hogging Jibo for over an hour. Let your sister talk to him.

But, as Leor Grebler pointed out, this situation won’t be a problem when everybody in the family has their very own social robot!

What Comes Next?

None of us on the panel wanted to predict what’s next for social robots and conversational devices in general. But we all agreed that we live in exciting times. Technologies are at an inflection point and the possibilities are limitless.

Social robots are here and more of them will enter our lives in the near future. It’s up to those of us in the industry not to lose sight of the challenges as we focus on all the opportunities.