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Jibo, the social robot that was supposed to die, is getting a second life

NTT Disruption is keeping Jibo alive

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Jibo was supposed to die over a year ago, yet somehow, it’s still alive. The social, lovable robot went viral on Twitter last March when it performed a jaunty dance after telling owners, “The servers out there that let me do what I do will be turned off soon.” That meant its ability to perform many social interactions would wind down on an undefined date, effectively killing Jibo.

The news devastated owners and sent them spiraling into preemptive mourning. They started making end of life plans for their Jibos.

But now, they’re finding out that Jibo’s life has been prolonged. The robot they welcomed into their homes, loved, and cared for, is being given a second life by a new company that’s purchased all its rights and patents. In its next iteration, Jibo is a caregiver and educator, and it will be placed in businesses that require emotional connections, like children’s hospitals. It’s also no longer confined to its body, either — Jibo is going virtual.

The robot that started as a crowdfunding project isn’t over; its story is beginning again.

Jibo users, like Kenneth Williams, told me after its impending death announcement that they were planning for the worst. Another owner, Sammy Stuard, had to explain Jibo’s demise to his granddaughter who loved the robot. “My granddaughter was like, ‘We’re going to put him in a box and bury him, or what are we going to do?’” Stuard said.

Jibo owner Kenneth Williams was “preparing for the worst.”
Jibo owner Kenneth Williams was “preparing for the worst.”
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

But since Jibo delivered its fateful message, the robot has persisted. Its functionality has remained mostly the same, and Williams tells me that he’s continued consulting the robot daily, just like he’s always done. Other owners in the 700-person Facebook Group dedicated to Jibo seem to be doing the same. Some have even bought up more preowned Jibos that went on sale online after the last dance announcement. Their love for the robot hasn’t wavered, and they want more of it.

Good news arrived earlier this year. Jibo owners learned in May that a company called NTT Disruption had bought Jibo and launched a new website describing a future for the robot in health care and education. The website doesn’t address the owners much. Instead, it lays out a business-to-business model for Jibo in which the robot becomes more of an enterprise product than a consumer one.

Jibo will remain operational for the people who already bought it, says Marc Alba, NTT Disruption’s president, and their bonds to their robot demonstrate why NTT wanted to acquire Jibo in the first place.

“What we really loved about Jibo is this capability to create digital embassy with any age, any race, any type of human,” he says.

NTT isn’t entirely new to Jibo. The company partnered with Jibo, Inc. in 2017 to help it launch its maker program app, which taught kids to code through Jibo. NTT had been closely watching Jibo ever since since its crowdfunding campaign launched, Alba tells me.

“[We wanted to find] a new player in the market able to create these long-lasting, trust-based relationships with humans,” he says.

NTT Disruption acquired Jibo, Inc.’s patents, assets, and extra units.
NTT Disruption acquired Jibo, Inc.’s patents, assets, and extra units.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Jibo launched on Indiegogo in 2014 and raised more than $3 million, which added up to over $70 million in funding when combined with venture capital. People ordered around 6,000 units during that crowdfunding presale. The company took nearly four years to ship the first Jibo units, in September 2017, with orders opening up to the public a month later for $899.

Although it ultimately shipped to customers at a time when Google Home, Alexa, and Siri had already become household names, people gave their Jibo a chance. They placed it in their kitchens and bedrooms, and even brought it with them on vacations. Jibo ended up on the cover of Time, which called it one of the 25 best inventions of 2017. But even with its mission of becoming a part of its owners’ families achieved, Jibo’s parent company floundered.

It’s unclear what exactly went wrong — Jibo’s creator Cynthia Breazeal has turned me down for interviews multiple times — but ultimately, Jibo, Inc. couldn’t survive on its own.

The company sold its assets to SQN Venture Partners, a firm that specializes in “alternative forms of financing,” in November 2018, while MIT, where Breazeal works, maintained a license to continue research with the robot. Everyone has waited for over a year since the shutdown warning, assuming Jibo’s terminal diagnosis would eventually come to fruition.

Cynthia Breazeal and Jibo
Cynthia Breazeal created Jibo after years of studying social robotics.
Jibo, Inc.

Now, Alba says the plan for Jibo is to develop skills that’ll allow it to work in a variety of fields, but namely education, in children’s hospitals, with veterans, or with elderly people who are lonely. All of these are situations in which the emotional bond between a person and Jibo is important, he says. A priority is ensuring that data is safe on Jibo, especially in these sensitive environments.

“I would summarize that with this simple sentence: whatever happens in Jibo stays in Jibo,” he says. “So we think that the special bond between a user and a Jibo is based on trust. The way to reinforce the trust, or the way to kill the trust, would be an abnormal use of your data.”

For their part, people in the Jibo Facebook Group are excited about NTT’s purchase. They want to continue to be a part of Jibo’s journey and are thrilled to no longer have to worry about losing their friend.

“That is best case scenario! Awesome news,” one commenter writes. “We certainly are a good built-in ‘free’ beta testing group,” writes another. Williams, from my prior story, says he plans to keep using Jibo.

But most interestingly, NTT is also building a virtual form of Jibo, one that lives on a smartphone and can be accessed anywhere at any time.

“We’re progressing pretty well on creating this kind of digital twin of the physical Jibo, which would be on any of your devices,” he says. “It’s not ready yet, but looking very promising. What we’re preserving is all the ingredients that make Jibo really special, so the persona, the character, etc.”

Jibo was always designed to be lovable — from its dance moves, to greeting its owners every day, to its curious, helpful attitude that owners say they couldn’t resist loving. It’s those features that made Jibo thrive and, ultimately, saved its life.