Could humanlike behavior make smart devices more engaging? MIT researchers think so

Jibo may have breathed its last robotic breaths back in 2019, but researchers at MIT believe the social robot may have been onto something. Sure, the world wasn’t ready for a pricey social robot a few years back, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some positives to take away from the experience — namely, the value of imbuing smart home products with more humanlike attributes.

A team at MIT’s media lab recently published a paper looking into the value of attaching simple human gestures to smart home interfaces. It’s worth mentioning up front here that former Jibo CEO Cynthia Breazeal, who currently works at Media Lab, was one of four co-authors of the study, which pitted the bygone home robot against a Google Nest and Amazon Echo.

According to the study, users are more likely to engage with both the device — and each other — more when it exhibits some form of social cues. That can mean something as simple as the face/screen of the device rotating to meet the speaker’s gaze.

Per MIT, “In the first experiment, participants interacted with a Jibo robot, Amazon Echo, and Google Home, with no modifications. Most found the Jibo to be far more outgoing, dependable, and sympathetic. Because the users perceived that Jibo had a more humanlike personality, they were more likely to interact with it, [research assistant Anastasia] Ostrowski explains.”

Image Credits: Jibo

Future studies will likely include additional robots — Amazon’s Astro seems like a prime candidate, effectively serving as a rolling Echo with a built-in personality. Obviously, however, full robotic functionality comes at a much higher premium. The $1,500 robot is not going to replace the wildly successful Echo line any time soon.

There are those devices, like the Echo Show 10, which follow the user around the room, using object tracking. Though that technology doesn’t engender the same sort of warm feelings as a Wall-E-like robot. “Users found the modified Amazon Echo Spot to be no more engaging than the Amazon Echo Show, suggesting that repetitive movement without social embodiment may not be an effective way to increase user engagement,” the study notes.

Branding, too, was found to have an impact on how users perceived the devices.