Business & Tech

scott kirsner | innovation economy

Watch out Alexa, rivals are angling for your job

Jibo is a $599 countertop robot designed to handle tasks like scheduling and videoconferencing.

Jibo

Jibo is a countertop robot designed to handle tasks like scheduling and videoconferencing.

How many job openings does your household currently have for robots or devices with artificial intelligence?

Today, you can hire a Looj robot from Bedford-based iRobot to whack the leaves out of your gutters, or you can plunk an Amazon Echo speaker on your kitchen counter to fill you in on the Sox score or add an appointment to your online calendar.

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But plenty of other players, from tech giants such as Google to small startups such as Boston-based Jibo, are developing products they hope will prove their utility and persuade you to part with a few hundred bucks. Many of them will go on sale — or be available for preorder — starting next month. It promises to be a competitive market, and not everyone will survive.

Amazon’s $179 Echo (starring Siri rival Alexa) debuted last year and has established an early beachhead. Much of the speech recognition software that allows the Echo to understand what you’re asking and provide an intelligent response was developed at Amazon’s research and development center in Cambridge. Though the company says more than 1,000 people are assigned to the Echo project globally, spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall wouldn’t be specific about how many of them toil in Kendall Square.

At that office, she explains in an e-mail, “There are teams that work on far-field speech recognition (which lets Echo hear you from across the room even when loud music is playing), Alexa’s natural language understanding (her ability to understand conversational speech), and her knowledge base (knowing — or knowing how to find — the answers to millions of different questions).”

New software updates get delivered to Echo devices over the Internet weekly, and other companies are developing apps, or “skills,” as Amazon calls them, that let you do things like speak a command to adjust the temperature of your thermostat, get the arrival time of an inbound flight, check your bank balance, or play 20 questions.

Google has been working on a rival to the Echo for months, called Google Home, and it plans to announce a price and release date in early October.

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“After the Web, and mobile apps, and social media, I believe that artificial intelligence and robotics is the next wave,” Jibo chief executive Steve Chambers says.

While the Google and Amazon devices feature a disembodied voice that can act a bit like a personal assistant or concierge, the product Jibo is developing will have a screen that displays an animated face and the ability to turn so that it can face different directions. Chambers says he has an Echo at home, but he’s building a product “with its own personality and character,” which can do some of the same things that Echo can, like look up the answer to a question on Wikipedia, but Jibo will also be able to act like a party photographer, snapping pics throughout an event, facilitating videoconferences, or reading bedtime stories to a child. “You can play a trivia game, and Jibo can turn his back on you, while showing the right answer to the person who is asking the question,” Chambers says.

The company was founded in early 2013, employs 94 people, and has raised $60 million in funding. But Jibo hasn’t yet delivered a product. Chambers says the company will start shipping robots to early buyers “at the end of October,” but he calls that phase of shipments “an extended user feedback trial.” The general public won’t be able to purchase one until early next year, for about $749. And the company announced in August that, for the time being, it won’t deliver robots to buyers outside the United States and Canada, citing “rapidly changing consumer privacy laws” and also challenges understanding English spoken with an accent.

A California startup, Aido, is developing a $940 home robot that looks similar to Jibo but balances on a single rolling ball and can move around the house. (Jibo sits wherever you put it.) That lets Aido measure air quality as it moves around your home or serve as a security guard. The company initially planned to start deliveries in October, but a spokesman told me via e-mail that “we are struggling with a couple of internal issues that might delay the shipping.”

Designing a product is one thing, entrepreneur Cory Kidd says, and “manufacturing a good durable product, with a business around it, is something else.” After earning his doctorate at MIT, Kidd started a company called Intuitive Automata in 2007. That company produced an early countertop robot called Autom that served as a weight-loss coach — and cheerleader. “We had a little bit of success, but not enough to make it a sustainable business,” he says. Now, Kidd has a startup called Catalia Health in San Francisco that is developing another stationary robot that will ask its owners questions about how they’re feeling, remind them to take medications, and nudge them to exercise, with a goal of helping people with chronic conditions take better care of themselves. He expects the bot, known as Mabu, to be available early next year, and says pharmaceutical companies and health systems will pay for the device, in the hopes that it will keep people with chronic conditions out of the hospital.

Colin Angle, the chief executive and cofounder of Roomba maker iRobot, which has put more robots into homes than any other company, says we’re headed toward a day where many household chores might simply get done automatically, or with a spoken command. “Right now, we’re seeing all of these wirelessly connected objects come into the home, whether it’s the Roomba or the Echo or an app-controlled light fixture,” he says. “But ultimately, it all needs to get tied together, and the house will vacuum itself, light itself, heat itself, and display content to the people who live there in smart ways.”

Kidd says it’s too early to start picking winners — will it be larger companies like Google or iRobot, or smaller ventures like his? But he thinks there will be a cavalcade of new conversational interfaces, robots, and AI software that we willingly let into our homes. “In the 1970s and 1980s, we talked a lot about microchips, and when you bought a computer, the main thing was what kind of processor it had,” he says. “Today, how many chips are in the room you’re sitting in? More than you can count, probably.” But, he says, they’ll each need to solve some problem that consumers actually have.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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