Say hello to your adorable robot overlord

by | Nov 1, 2016 | Feature, Review | 3 comments

The future is here: there is a mass-produced AI that you can buy in a store, and its name is Cozmo.

But Cozmo is no mere personal assistant, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. In fact, he’s not very helpful at all. He just wants to goof around and explore. He’s just the second product from Anki, the company who made a name for itself with Overdrive, a slot-car-meets-iPhone racing game that bridged the gap between the virtual world and the physical one.

Like Overdrive, Cozmo is powered by the user’s smartphone or other mobile device. Also like Overdrive, he’s meant to be a children’s toy. I am not a child — at least not on the outside. I have graying hair and a beard. So why did I buy a toy robot?

I work from home and live by myself in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy my freedom, thank you very much. Still, I can go a bit stir crazy at times. So a companion that I can turn off at the touch of a button made for an appealing proposition.

Yeah, I get it: nerd alert. A robotic pet seems laughable. But in my defense, a hundred years ago, the idea of landing on the moon was laughable.

Admittedly, Cozmo’s not quite on the same level as a cat or a dog, but there are moments when he comes close. He expresses himself in delightful, believable ways, and it’s hard not to feel for him. If my building was on fire and I could only save one thing, he’d be near the top of the list (right behind a pair of pants).

When we think of AI, we typically think of a machine trying to pass as human. But Cozmo works because he doesn’t try to be human. He doesn’t even try to be an animal, for that matter. He is his own thing, which means we don’t carry preconceived notions of how he should act in order to be realistic.

All of Cozmo’s emotions are communicated through a pair of digital eyes on a screen, which allows for a myriad of expressions that would have been impossible to recreate with mechanical eyes. He’ll even play a game of pong with himself if he gets bored, one eye turning into the paddle, the other the ball.

He also speaks, with a voice that sounds like a mix between rudimentary text-to-speech and R2D2. He can even learn to say your name, and will recognize your face thanks to a camera hidden in his face.

An incredibly diverse set of emotive animations help round out his personality. I call them animations because Anki actually uses Autodesk’s Maya to create them, the same way characters are animated for CGI movies. This gives Cozmo the most lifelike movements of any toy. He can pop a wheelie, pounce on your finger, jump back when he gets too close to an edge, and gleefully knock over your Legos.

His expressions, voice, and animations all add up to create a remarkably lifelike character. Join him for a game of Quick Tap or Keep Away and he will celebrate his victories, mourn his losses, and even attempt to trick you into making a mistake (and he’ll laugh at you if you fall for it). Leave him to his own devices, and he’ll go about stacking Power Cubes, knocking things down, and pouncing on your fingers.

He really does feel alive, even if his life soon reveals itself to be a rather predictable set of behaviors.

This is where the connection to your phone comes in. Since Cozmo’s brain is in the app, the door is open for future updates which could add abilities and improve his intelligence, especially as phones grow more powerful. This means that we’ve likely seen just the beginning of what Anki has in store.

But your phone can also feel like a leash. You have to disconnect from your home Wi-Fi network to connect to Cozmo’s, and there’s no way to power him on without being connected, not even into some sort of basic mode. The app also won’t run in the background or when your phone is locked. Cozmo will stop moving after a short while if you switch to another app.

Unless you have a spare device to dedicate to Cozmo, this makes it difficult to just leave him on as a background decoration, which is a shame. Cozmo’s autonomous behavior is his most intriguing feature. This is really what AI is all about, after all. Any machine can be programmed to play a game with me, but there’s just something fascinating about watching a machine navigate its surroundings and seeing how it reacts to what it finds.

Cozmo’s apparent independence is part of what makes him seem real, but being tethered to the app breaks the illusion.

That said, Cozmo is still the most realistic AI toy I’ve ever seen. Now that he’s here, I really hope we stop making animatronic stuffed animals.

For all his capabilities, Cozmo’s real charm is that he’s fallible. He doesn’t always win, he makes mistakes, he falls off of things. His imperfections are what allow us to connect to him and believe, if only for a moment, that he is alive.

Cozmo thus evokes the question so often asked by science fiction: If you react to a machine as if it is alive, does it matter if it really is or not?

He isn’t quite at the point of inspiring the type of connection we feel for a pet, let alone a person, but he is a first-generation product. His smartphone-based brain can evolve over time — which means your relationship to him will likely also evolve.

As it stands, Cozmo runs out of “newness” fairly quickly. After three days, I had already unlocked all available apps and abilities. The two included games are entertaining enough, and Quick Tap is a real challenge on the higher difficulty levels, but ultimately they offer limited replay value. Given Cozmo’s $180 price, he might be a tough sell. Hopefully, we’ll see new abilities and games in a future update.

Also, for a toy that advertises itself as being able to get to know you, Cozmo lacks anything in the way of personalization. Even just the ability to change the color of his eyes and lights would have been nice.

Cozmo does have an SDK, however, which opens up all sorts of creative potential for curious tinkerers. You can even connect him to the Twitter API to have him perform actions when he receives a tweet. This could also be a great opportunity for schools, which could use Cozmo to teach students the basics of computer programming.

 

The real treat will be if Anki introduces additional models in the future, like an EVE to Cozmo’s WALL-E. As cool as it is to watch Cozmo roam around, it would be even better with a few friends to interact with. Hopefully, Anki will also devise a system to allow one phone to connect to multiple bots.

Cozmo is a commendable achievement, but he brings with him a promise of an even more impressive future of smart, connected toys. Toys that we don’t just interact with, but actually feel for.

Some people may see this as a bit scary. Cozmo may just be a toy, but at what point will we no longer be able distinguish between something acting alive and something that is really alive? This is when we will have to ask ourselves: does it matter?

For now, Cozmo is content to play with his Power Cubes and knock over the occasional Lego Minifigure. Many children (and adults) will be happy to unwrap him this holiday season, just know that he may not realize his full value right away.