This “useless” social robot wants to succeed where others failed

[This IEEE Spectrum story features an interview with one of the creators of a new social robot designed specifically to evoke medium-as-social-actor presence by being emotionally engaging rather than performing tasks. See the original for 3 more pictures and a 1:46 minute video. –Matthew]

This “Useless” Social Robot Wants to Succeed Where Others Failed

The creators of Kiki believe they can build an emotionally engaging social home robot that is also “completely useless”

By Evan Ackerman
September 19, 2019

The recent high-profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with: Making a robot that can autonomously interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.

One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kickstarter for US $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.

Kiki’s Kickstarter video [see the original story or YouTube] is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign.

We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:

  • Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
  • Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
  • Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
  • Depending on how you treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
  • Everything Kiki does runs on board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but it doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.

It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic cofounder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?

Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU, and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got canceled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also canceled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.

You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo. Why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?

I thought Jibo was great. It had a special, magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.

Can you elaborate on “completely useless”?

I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around—even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.

I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.

What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?

The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.

We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think, “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration, so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.

That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.

It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.

How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?

Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotionally driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.

Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?

Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.

For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn in the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.

There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.

A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.

I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.

I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.

Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?

Kiki is definitely not human; we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.

I feel like Kiki probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.

What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?

When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.

There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users’ reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.

 

While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.

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