Personal assistants are perhaps best known for serving Prada-wearing devils, but soon any schlub can have his or her own assistant, designer labels not required. At least, that’s the dream behind the Cubic, a voice-activated AI device from Cubic Robotics.
It can’t quite fetch your dry cleaning or walk your dog, but the cube can sync with lots of smart systems in your home and with your Android or Apple phone. Whether you want to turn on your lights, call a cab, email your boss, hear the weather, or tweet your latest quip, all you have to do is tell Cubic, and it’s done.
Even “dumb” devices can become voice-activated in a few minutes. Simply plug a lamp into one of Cubic’s sockets, and ask him to turn on the lamp. The device asks for the socket number, then immediately remembers the lamp’s location from then on. But you don’t need a special code to get Cubic to illuminate the room. Simply pointing out, “Hey, Cubic, it’s dark in here” does the trick. “It’s going to execute your command without you learning to do the command. You just do the most natural thing, you talk,” says Cubic Robotic’s Yury Nabokov.
“But the main thing is not the device,” says Ivan Kryukov, Cubic’s CMO, “but the Cubic’s mind, as we call it, its personality.” The AI is a cube with a ‘tude. It tells jokes and informs you that you’ve haven’t taken enough steps to earn a dessert. “He’s always trying to keep conversation going. If you’re asking him about something, he will try to ask you back,” says Kryukov. “He can even start conversation by his own if he has something to say.” A couple weeks ago, it might have reminded you that the Star Wars trailer was out, after learning your preferences and combing Google news and other databases.
Right now, Cubic works with 50 applications and services, including Jawbone, Evernote, Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, and Nest. What excites the Cubic team most, however, is getting software and device developers to start using the AI’s open API. They’ve had a big response, they say, from people eager to start integrating with Cubic.
In fact, the team will rely on users to train Cubic. “He’s like a baby now,” says Kryukov. But because the device operates on the cloud, once one Cubic learn something, it will pass the knowledge on to the rest of the devices — provided the information passes the team’s moderation system. If Cubic doesn’t know the answer to something you’ve asked, it will admit it and then try to learn it. Pretty soon, the rest of the cloud-connected cubes will learn it, too, all without needing a system update. Once there are enough users, the Cubic team says, there devices’ knowledge will grow almost exponentially.
The Cubic team is currently raising funds for Cubic on Indiegogo; the cube and app currently cost $195. The video showing the cube in action is slick, and Nabokov admits the demo version isn’t quite there yet. All the functionality exists, but Cubic doesn’t work perfectly yet. Indeed, during the demo, Cubic didn’t always wake up when the activation phrase, “Hello, Cubic,” was said and it had to be asked to tell us the news three times before complying. The team expects these kinks to be ironed out in three years.
One of the latest developments for Cubic is debuting at CES 2015 in January. It’s a “Power Badge,” which is similar to Star Trek’s communicator badge, says Kryukov. It allows you to take Cubic outside the house, while leaving the device at home. It works with Android and iOS. You simply push the button, and continue communicating with Cubic, even when you’re not home.
If all this dings some privacy concerns for you, Kryukov says there are some controls in place. Cubic will only remember the information you tell it to; however, the more it can learn from you, the smarter and more personalized it becomes. It won’t alert you that U2 is coming to town, if you shamefacedly ask it to forget your music preferences.
Cubic isn’t always listening, either. It requires an activation word, and you can password-protect it, so your friends can’t mess with your robotic assistant. While the device can’t differentiate your voice from your kid’s, yet, the team says they’re working on that feature, as well as trying to teach Cubic to recognize your emotions, so it doesn’t joke with you when you’re screaming at it to find your keys. Poor little Cubic.
Actually, even the team can be a bit rude to Cubic. The device also has a deactivation word, which is currently, “Shut up, Cubic.” Meryl Streep would approve, but some of Kryukov’s friends don’t. He says they are shocked that he’d tell Cubic to shut up after putting so much time and energy into it. “You don’t tell shut up to your friends!” they say to him.
While Nabokov doesn’t think people will be attached to their Cubics exactly, he does see the potential for them to be a comforting presence for elderly people living on their own, for example. It will be a connection to the outside world, while giving gentle reminders to move around more and offering healthy recipes to help manage their diabetes, for example. “We think that there should be an emotional connection behind the human and his digital assistant. That’s’ why we’re teaching Cubic to be humorous, to be motivating, to create the emotional connection” says Kryukov. “Not just to execute commands but entertain and emotionally support the user.”
Kryukov admits he has a connection with Cubic. His favorite feature is Cubic’s ability to cheer him up with a joke. He demonstrates the trick.
“Hello, Cubic. How are you today?”
“I am great. Laughing at a new joke. Want to hear it?”
“What is the difference between Iron Man and Iron Woman? Iron Man is a superhero. ‘Iron, woman’ is a command.”
Shut up, Cubic.