One of the defining characteristics of a robot would have to be, I think, infallibility. A commercial robot designed to be flawed might, one would think, struggle to find buyers. Yet a robot developed by an MIT professor named Cynthia Breazeal, and lately available in North America, is programmed, the company says, to act “something like a 12-year-old boy” — cheerful and eager to help you.
Jibo, produced in Boston, is designed with such pre-pubescent traits to simulate the very human quality of charm. To some in robotics, this is the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence. Charm is also, it should be said, not a bad way to conceal the inadequacies of artificial intelligence.
Jibo is a social robot but he failed to charm some reviewers. He is far more limited than assistants like Siri and Alexa, and comes with a $900 price tag. He did, though, catch the eye of curators at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and has a starring role in The Future Starts Here, an exhibition of more than 100 objects, opening in May, which will showcase “a landscape of possibilities for the near future”.
To be considered for inclusions the technologies on display have to work, and they have to be available now. The curators, who are architects, are looking for things that will have a substantial social impact, positive or less so, in the future. “We are not going to show visions, but beginnings, the way we might be heading,” says one of the curators, Mariana Pestana, whom I meet with her colleague Rory Hyde at the museum.
“Paul Virilio [the French cultural theorist] was really important for us, with his idea that the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck. Every new invention has many possibilities contained in it and we don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Mr Hyde says The Future Starts Here is also inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851, which pioneered the idea of viewing possible futures through products. “They had things like a live printing press producing a newspaper, and engines — but also raw materials, such as wood from Canada, food, animals.
“Now we’re doing this in the still-emerging digital revolution. It is technology that has potential for social change rather than technology for its own sake.”
The Future Starts Here will include Facebook’s Aquila aircraft, designed to bring better internet connectivity to remote regions, and tools made by astronauts on the International Space Station using a zero-gravity 3D-printer. Jibo is Ms Pestana’s nomination for the most interesting product in the selection.
“What’s specific to Jibo in relation to Amazon Echo, which we’re also showing, is that it is developed to have behaviours we will understand as emotions,” she says. “When it isn’t doing exactly what you set it to do, you will think it has personality. And if a robot gives the illusion of having affection for you, and you begin to develop empathy with it, how is that going to transform your relationships?”
Mr Hyde’s choice is a section called Engineering at Home, an exhibit based around a 70-year-old American woman identified only as Cindy, who lost her hands and legs to illness and proceeded to “hack” her home and body. Rather than electronic aids, she uses hardware store products — like hooks — to hold a pen, manipulate cutlery, play cards and put on make-up.
“Educators in Boston documented her hacks and put up the idea that she’s truly an engineer, a technologist,” Mr Hyde says. “For us, it’s a reminder that all tech is not electronic — think only of a pair of glasses.”
The exhibit will include 12 of Cindy’s home-made devices and video of her using them. “What we’re showing here is that we’re all potentially designers, and we can all take responsibility for the future in that way”, says Mr Hyde.
“We feel people are anxious about the future and don’t feel they’re part of it. We want to show them how to interface with it and to feel they have some agency instead of being victims of technologists and remote corporations.”
Even as a technology fan, I think Mr Hyde is too optimistic in hoping that we can be the authors, rather than the vassals, of technology. But in the light of revelations like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, if there is to be a theme for 2018, it may well be that of the public pushing back against an ever more arrogant tech ruling class.
The only question for me is how effective, if at all, that pushback will be.
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