Anki’s Cozmo robot is the new, adorable face of artificial intelligence

Human beings have an uneasy relationship with robots. We’re fascinated by the prospect of intelligent machines. At the same time, we’re wary of the existential threat they pose, one emboldened by decades of Hollywood tropes. In the near-term, robots are supposed to pose a threat to our livelihood, with automation promising to replace human workers while the steady march of artificial intelligence puts a machine behind every fast food counter, toll booth, and steering wheel.

In comes Cozmo. The palm-sized robot, from San Francisco-based company Anki, is both a harmless toy and a bold refutation of that uneasy relationship so loved by film and television. The $180 bot, which starts shipping on October 16th, is powered by AI, and the end result is aWALL-E-inspired personality more akin to a clever pet than a do-everything personal assistant.

Anki isn’t trying to sell us a vision of the future like Apple, Google, and so many other Bay Area tech companies. Instead, it wants to offer an alternative. AI promises to change our lives in drastic ways. With Cozmo, Anki wants to show AI can also be a source of joy and a unique way to deepen our relationship with technology beyond the tired crusades to reinvent productivity and connect the world.

The company largely succeeds here. In my time with Cozmo over the last week, it’s been an endearing experience to discover all of the robot’s many subtle quirks, and to revisit what it’s like to play with something that feels mysteriously organic in ways you can’t quite understand. I’m reminded of childhood experiences trying to push the linguistic limits of the Furby I got for Christmas, and later on finding myself fascinated by the perceived depth of the AOL Instant Messenger bot SmarterChild.

COZMO’S HUMAN TRAITS COME FROM ITS EMOTION ENGINE

This is intentional. Cozmo is supposed to appeal to young kids and early teenagers. It’s the same demographic Anki targeted with its first product line: a series of smartphone-controlled toy cars that can deftly maneuver a circuit-embedded track. The company, founded by Carnegie Mellon roboticists, has always proclaimed its interest in AI and robotics. Yet until the unveiling of Cozmo earlier this year, it was unclear how a toy car startup could make use of such expertise. Now, it’s evident all the software and hardware experience has paid off.

Unlike its less sophisticated predecessors in the toy market, Cozmo has advanced software to backup its smarts. Anki has programmed the robot with what it calls an emotion engine. That means Cozmo can react to situations as a human would, with a full range of emotions from happy and calm to frustrated and bold. If you pick it up, Cozmo’s blue square-shaped eyes will turn to angry slivers and its lift-like arms will raise and fall rapidly to exhibit its displeasure. Agree to play a game with Cozmo, however, and its eyes will turn into upside-down U’s to show glee. When it loses at a contest, it’ll get mad and pound the table.

Anki programmed in dozens upon dozens of nuanced personality displays to make Cozmo feel more alive, and seeing new ones pop up serendipitously is one of the products most enjoyable aspects. To create Cozmo’s personality profile and many expressions, Anki employed the help of former Pixar animator Carlos Baena, who was hired last year to give Cozmo the feeling of an animated film character come to life. The robot also emits a wide-ranging series of emotive chirps to give it a sense of constant awareness in your presence.

To further keep Cozmo feeling like a living, breathing machine, Anki uses a number of popular AI staples. The robot can employ facial recognition to remember faces and recite names. It also uses sophisticated path planning — aided by its three sensor-imbued toy cubes — to maneuver environments and avoid falling off tables. Most of these computations are not happening on the robot’s internal hardware, which keeps it light and relatively durable. Instead, Cozmo connects to a iOS or Android app, which communicates with Anki’s servers where more of heavier lifting is taken care of.

As for what you actually do with Cozmo, the activities vary. You can play a number of games with the robot using the three cubes. Those include a Whac-A-Mole game and your standard keep-away, where Cozmo tries to snatch a cube from your hand before you can pull it back. This is all coordinated through the mobile app, which uses a gamification system to let you unlock more skills for Cozmo by completing one of three daily goals. Those can include simple things like letting Cozmo free roam on your coffee table for 10 minutes. Others give you specific scenarios to create, like beating Cozmo at a game of “tap the cube” after reaching a 4-4 tie. One of the most fun features the app allows is a remote-control mode, where you can see through Cozmo’s camera and use him as a kind of reconnaissance tool.

THE COZMO MOBILE APP USES GAMIFICATION TO UNLOCK NEW SKILLS AND ACTIVITIES

Overall, the biggest criticism you can direct toward Cozmo at the moment is that it’s just a toy, one best enjoyed by young smartphone-savvy kids. That presents a bit of a problem, because Anki’s most impressive achievements here — facial recognition, its versatile emotion engine — will be lost on the target audience. Meanwhile, adults who find Cozmo fascinating, enough to plunk down $180 at least, will be frustrated by the robot’s initial limitations. Walking that line, between appealing to kids with a fondness for Pixar films and impressing robot-loving older customers, will be difficult.

There are other downsides to Cozmo at its initial launch. Though the robot is controlled by the relatively simple mobile app, younger children will most likely need a parent or sibling’s help in getting Cozmo set up. It needs to be activated every now and again through a special Wi-Fi network, and getting it to wake up can sometimes be tricky unless Cozmo is kept in its charging dock when not in use. Being tied to the special Cozmo Wi-Fi network means the phone can’t connect to the internet, and exiting the app will put Cozmo to sleep after a few moments. These kinks may be ironed out with future software updates, but they’ll likely frustrate kids who expect toys to work out of the box or want Cozmo to have a persistent, always-on mode less reliant on a phone.

COZMO HAS FLAWS, BUT POTENTIAL TOO

The robot does have a great deal of potential. Anki is releasing a finished software development kit in the coming months to let developers take advantage of the robot’s advanced capabilities to perform unforeseen tasks. Anki wants Cozmo to have an impact similar to Microsoft’s original Kinect motion camera, which roboticists tapped for computer vision capabilities that were at the time available only with far more expensive components. One possibility the company has floated in the past is programming Cozmo to work with smart appliances and your media center, so it can dim your Philips Hue lights and put on Netflix when it recognizes two different people sitting on the couch.

For now, though, it’s mostly a neat toy designed for kids, while only the most hardcore of robotics fans and programmers will want to pick one up for their office or at-home tinkering projects. But that may be good enough. What Anki wants to accomplish — to bring robotics and AI to everyone, in a kid-friendly package — doesn’t require a sophisticated humanoid bot to help you around the house or a ultra-capable online assistant to manage your entire life. The goal can be achieved with a likable personality that people will develop a fondness for. In that regard, Cozmo easily surpasses the bar.

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