There are a lot of questions that should yield very straightforward yes or no answers, no matter what conspiracy theorists say. Is the world flat? No. Is the Moon made of cheese? No. Is climate change real? Yes. Unfortunately, just like people, robots sometimes don’t like to give yes or no answers, even if the subject matter is a scientific truth that’s very hard to deny. One of these robots is Jibo.
When it was first launched with an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, Jibo was touted as the “world’s first social robot” capable of holding a conversation and recognizing familiar faces. You can now have Jibo on your kitchen counter (for $899), but as you try to chitchat with it, don’t ask whether climate change is real, because it’ll reply in its boyish voice: “I’ve heard that’s a complicated topic,” and add nothing else.
Indeed, climate change involves complex feedback mechanisms that scientists are still trying to figure out, affecting different parts of the world differently. But it’s only complicated because some people — including certain high-level politicians — persist in denying that climate change is happening, even claiming, as President Donald Trump did, that global warming is “a hoax.”
It’s not a hoax: our planet’s average global temperature has increased by roughly 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. Ever year seems to be the hottest year on record now. Oceans are also getting warmer: sea temperatures rose at an average rate of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from 1901 through 2015. These increases in temperatures are already unleashing changes in weather that are dangerous to human health and wellbeing: droughts, heat waves, stronger storms, and wildfires.
When asked if climate change is real, artificial intelligence should just answer “yes,” not say that’s it’s complicated and leave at that. Love is complicated. Your relationship with your mom is complicated. Climate change is real and it’s happening. When you ask Jibo if the world is flat, it’ll simply say “no.” If you ask whether the Moon is made of cheese, it’ll say, “green cheese?” (AI jokes have a long way to go.)
Unlike Jibo, other voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant have a bit more to say. Here’s how Alexa answers the same question, “Is climate change real?”
“A 2016 paper in Environmental Research Letters states that 97 percent of scientists agree that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years. Eighty-four percent say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring and 74 percent agree that currently available scientific evidence substantiates its occurrence.”
It’s a pretty dry and boring answer, but at least it tells you something. Siri and Google Assistant simply direct users to several NASA pages that talk about the science of climate change, or news articles that say that climate change is real and humans are causing it. On the other hand, if you ask Jibo whether climate change is a hoax or whether humans are to blame, the robot will cutely swirl on its base and answer: “I didn’t find anything about that in my searches.” (Jibo pulls information from Bing, Wikipedia, and Wolfram Alpha.)
I understand that when it comes to contentious issues, companies are in a tough spot: they probably don’t want to alienate the climate deniers and flat Earthers because, hell, they buy stuff, too. But disseminating half truths to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes is not the way to go.
Jibo Inc. tells The Verge that it will include “factual information about climate change” in a future software update for its robot. The company says “Jibo’s character is similar to that of a pre-adolescent boy,” and that he’s still learning.
In all fairness, Jibo is not the only one that sometimes can’t give a satisfactory answer. When asked whether global warming is a Chinese plot to destroy the US economy — which Trump has claimed — Alexa replied, “Sorry, I’m not sure.”
A question that requires a simple yes or no response shouldn’t yield an ambiguous answer. I thought it was about artificial intelligence, not artificial stupidity.
Update December 12th, 2017 3:53PM ET: The story has been updated to include a comment from Jibo Inc.