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Jibo Is Probably Totally Dead Now

The pioneering social robot company has sold its IP and assets, meaning that this is pretty much the end

3 min read
Jibo robot
Image: IEEE Spectrum

In some very sad but not at all surprising news considering how things have been going for social robots lately, The Robot Report is, er, reporting that Jibo Inc. has completed the sale of its assets and intellectual property to a New York–based investment management firm, which I suspect is not going to be using Jibo’s IP to build robots.

Sigh.

We’ve known for a while that Jibo (the company) was having some challenges both in selling robots and meeting expectations. Layoffs followed, and back in June, a Boston Globe reporter stopped by Jibo’s Boston office to find it deserted and full of packing material and sold furniture.

New Jibos haven’t been available to purchase for months, although owners reported getting software updates as recently as August. According to The Robot Report, however, Jibo has now sold all of its IP and assets to SQN Venture Partners, which is probably just going to try to sell them off for as much money as possible. (We reached out to Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal last week to ask about the SQN deal and the fate of all the Jibo robots out there. We’ll update the post if we hear back.)

Cynthia Breazeal and Jibo Cynthia Breazeal and Jibo. Photo: Jibo

A few more details from The Robot Report:

Jibo also filed a Foreign Certificate of Withdrawal with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Jibo was a Massachusetts-based company that was incorporated in Delaware. By filing the form, Jibo acknowledges it “is not transacting business in the commonwealth” and “surrenders its authority to transact business in the commonwealth.”

The form was submitted by the Kallander Group, a Hudson, MA-based company that in part “specializes in comprehensive trust services for corporate restructuring and dissolution.” Barry Kallander, founder of the Kallander Group, was the last president of Jibo. He told The Robot Report that the Foreign Certificate of Withdrawal was filed because “we sold the assets of the company.” Due to confidentiality reasons, he did not confirm what company acquired the assets.

Being first at anything is hard. It’s especially hard in robotics, and even harder in consumer robotics, where the expectation is for things to work almost perfectly and cost almost nothing

It’s not clear what’s going to happen with existing Jibos—our best guess is that they won’t be getting more substantive updates or support, but they’ll continue to function until their cloud connectivity is inevitably turned off, at which point they won’t be able to do much of anything. We could be wrong about this, for example if some other company decides to buy Jibo’s assets and continue the service, but it’s difficult to see how that could be profitable at this point.

Jibo on the cover of Time Magazine last year. Jibo on the cover of Time last year. Image: Time

Being first at anything is hard. It’s especially hard in robotics, and even harder in consumer robotics, where the expectation is for things to work almost perfectly and cost almost nothing. Things were never going to be easy for Jibo as the first social home robot, but the company consistently sold its vision for what they wanted Jibo to be, rather than the reality of what Jibo was. This is unfortunate, because the reality of Jibo was impressive all by itself, with a unique emphasis on physical expression and the potential for a diverse array of capabilities backed by robust hardware. But by the time Jibo started ending up in homes, much of its functionality was duplicated by smartphones and other smart home devices like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. That left Jibo relying heavily on physical embodiment and a persistent emotional connection with its users that worked for some people, but left others disappointed. 

Again, these are challenges for social robots in general, and it’s hard to blame Jibo itself for not being able to get everything figured out in a long-term, profitable way. It’s also worth mentioning that Jibo’s compelling initial vision (and consequent funding) inspired many other companies to work on social home robots as well, and although we haven’t seen much success in that space overall, we can certainly say that there’s now an industry-wide understanding of just how powerful having a social connection with an embodied device can be. Figuring out how to leverage that knowledge in a practical and sustainable way is the next step, but we might not even be thinking about the future of consumer robotics in those terms if it wasn’t for Jibo.

[ Jibo ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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