In the United States, there are over 5 million young adults between the ages of 18-35 living alone, and that number is growing. While many of them may be living alone by choice, it can also be socially isolating, if you’re into that whole being social thing. The situation is similar in many other countries, especially in Asia. There are plenty of robots under development (and even available) for elderly people with social isolation issues, but younger people are expected to, uh, just go outside or something.
At the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction last month, roboticists from Korea introduced a robot called Fribo, which is designed to provide a way for young adults who live alone to maintain daily connections with one another. It does this by listening for what goes on in your life and the life of your friends, in as non-creepy a way as possible.
Fribo operates by listening for what’s called “living noise,” which is all of the stuff in your home that makes noise besides you. The robot’s voice recognition is minimal (and it doesn’t record voices), so it’s much more private than something like Alexa. It’s also smarter in many ways, with the ability to understand what’s going on in its environment just by listening.
Fribo can recognize noises like a vacuum cleaner motor running, a microwave turning on, a running washing machine, a refrigerator door opening or closing, noises from entrance doors or specific room doors, and more. Over time, with your help, it’s able to learn what new noises mean. The robot also has a ultrasonic sensor that it uses to detect whether you’re in the room or not, along with temperature, humidity, and ambient light sensors.
When a Fribo in your home hears a noise that it recognizes, it sends a message to another Fribo in your friend’s home, or even to an entire network of Fribos belonging to people you know:
As an example, let us assume one friend opened a refrigerator. When [Fribo] receives this event from the server, the robot starts to communicate this to the user by saying, “Oh, someone just opened the refrigerator door. I wonder which food your friend is going to have.”
Fribo, in other words, is not exactly a social robot: It’s more like a social networking robot. But unlike most social networks, Fribo was carefully thought out to respect your privacy as much as possible. Note that the message sent to your friends is anonymous—it tells them that someone is doing a thing, but not who. If they’re interested, they can let Fribo know by knocking on something nearby, and your Fribo will tell you exactly who responds. If you like, you can then ping them back directly.
Fundamentally, Fribo is intended to be a “trigger,” providing prompts that encourage follow-up social interactions. The robot itself isn’t really a mediator—it expects you to reach out to your friends, but it provides you with reasons to do so. And even if you don’t feel like reaching out all the time, Fribo will offer reminders that there are other people out there, which (coming from someone who really likes privacy) actually seems like it would be a bit comforting.
The researchers, from Yonsei University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), let some small friend groups (three people) of young adults (average age 25) try out an earlier version of Fribo for four weeks; here’s some of what they had to say about the experience of living with the robot:
“I can imagine what my friend is doing and I feel like we live in the same house, but in another room. It’s like sharing daily life activities with friends.”
“I usually wake up late in the morning, but when I began to notice my friends getting ready early, I started thinking about starting the day earlier with my friends.”
“[Fribo] helped break the silence and emptiness I felt at home after work. It is a different experience from the TV because it gives information about my friends’ activities. The robot seems like a living creature.”
“I usually do not get in touch with people. But nowadays, listening to activities has become a part of our conversation. The amount of conversation has increased as I contact my friends instantly whenever I feel like doing so.”
There was also this comment, which was interesting because Fribo only understands a few specific commands and very explicitly doesn’t “remember” anything you say to it:
“As I am aware of the robot’s presence in my house, I have started talking to the robot more often. I tell the robot things that I would not normally say out loud.”
Here’s what the researchers say about the results:
In the field study, the participants experienced a sense of realism of their friends because of the information delivered by [Fribo] in real time. The increased sense of reality made one feel physically closer and brought a sense of co-residence. This indicates that [Fribo] has provided the user with virtual living space shared with friends. The virtual living space formed by [Fribo] has a commonality with the state of living together in that intimate communication is possible, but there is a big difference in the presence of a robot middleman.
The presence of middleman has several advantages compared to the actual coresidence state or environment. The first is that social distance from friends can be adjusted according to one’s circumstances. Users can control the amount of information shared by setting up the robot middleman, thereby controlling one’s tiredness and loneliness experienced from the relationship. The second advantage is filtering out unnecessary information that one does not want to share. The private activity information such as bathroom related activities and phone conversation is a factor that lowers the positive effect of co-residence. As a middleman, the robot selectively recognizes activities, thereby eliminating the disadvantages of co-residence.
The researchers note that since the study was conducted in Korea, they’re not quite sure how successful Fribo would be in other cultures. They’d also like to try a much longer study (a year), and try Fribo out with family groups as well as friend groups. Personally, I find the idea of Fribo to be surprisingly compelling—if it ever gets produced, it would likely be super cheap, and I appreciate how it handles privacy. I don’t live alone, but I do have a bunch of very long distance friends who I am terrible at keeping up with, and it seems like Fribo might be able to help.