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Anki’s Cozmo robot is the real-life WALL-E we've been waiting for

Anki’s Cozmo robot is the real-life WALL-E we've been waiting for


Race cars to robots was the plan all along

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While Cozmo sleeps, it snores. The small robot — shaped like a miniaturized bulldozer with a CRT monitor for a cockpit — sits in a charging dock, waiting to be awoken. Like Pixar’s adorably anthropomorphic WALL-E, Cozmo falls somewhere between a Mars rover and an animated woodland creature. It’s lifelike enough to evoke sympathy, but still enough of a toy not to teeter too close to the uncanny valley.

With the tap of a smartphone screen, Cozmo comes to life. It makes a subtle motion to indicate it’s shaking off its slumber and begins wheeling over to the edge of the table. When it gets too close, it slams to a halt and looks down over the cliff, emitting a series of terrified chirps. When it wheels back and reorients itself, Cozmo takes a hard look at the other faces in the room. Some are new, but others it remembers from before it fell asleep.

Cozmo is the culmination of years of Anki's robotics and AI work

The robot is the latest creation from Anki, a Silicon Valley toymaker best known for building small race cars you can control using a mobile app. The company was founded in 2010 by a trio of Carnegie Mellon graduates with PhDs in robotics. Anki has always considered itself an artificial intelligence and robotics company, even if the average consumer could only see a toy car racing around a track. But now, with Cozmo, there is no doubt. Anki’s first robot fits in the palm of your hand, and it also happens to employ some of the most sophisticated AI software ever made available to consumers.

"In the very beginning, when we started working on the first version of [Anki] Drive, we realized that characters and personalities are a big deal," says Hanns Tappeiner, Anki’s co-founder and president. "The problem we had was that cars aren’t the best form factor to bring personalities out." So Anki kept the idea under wraps and toiled in secret on using AI and robotics to "bring a character to life which you would normally only see in movies," Tappeiner says.

Now, several years after the idea was first conceived, Cozmo is ready for the wider world. The robot is designed for ages eight and up and will sell for $180 in October, with pre-orders starting today. That's expensive when you consider Anki’s Overdrive racing package is only $150. But the company says Cozmo’s advanced software and high-quality hardware make it worth the money. For comparison, Thinkway’s traditional remote-controlled R2-D2 costs $150, while Sphero’s app-controlled BB-8 replica runs $130.

Cozmo will come with a set of sensor-embedded blocks that are used both to play games with the robot and to help it understand its position in the environment. The robot uses facial recognition technology powered by a camera where its mouth would be to remember different people, and its software will learn and adapt to you over time the more you play with it. Much of Cozmo’s heavier processing tasks are handled by a smartphone that’s been paired over Wi-Fi with Anki’s new mobile app, which frees up the robot itself from having to house more complex computer parts.

The real appeal of Cozmo, though, comes in what Anki is calling an emotion engine, which powers a wide range of different states the robot is capable of emulating. Drawing from academic psychology, those different states — happy, calm, brave, confident, and excited, to name a few — are derived from combinations of the big five personality traits used to describe the human psyche. By mixing and mashing these traits as if they were colors, Cozmo can replicate a surprisingly complex range of human-like emotions.

To create these emotion states for Cozmo, Anki began drawing from the expertise of former Pixar animator Carlos Baena, who was hired last year to run character direction. The company utilizes Maya, an industry-standard animation tool, to render various actions for Cozmo. "We wrote a huge amount of software inside of Maya to allow our animators not to animate a movie, but an actual robot," Tappeiner says. Anki requires its animators to test out each new sequence on a physical Cozmo prototype at their desks.

The animators are able to designate ranges for qualities like how fast and how high Cozmo raises its lift, moves its head or eyes, and expresses something using sound. "The moment you play animations multiple times, they feel canned," Tappeiner says. The ranges allow Cozmo’s AI to make those decisions on its own.

In my experience with the robot, it reacted to a wide range of different interactions in unique and often funny ways. Picking up Cozmo would result in an angry head shake. If it didn’t feel like playing a game, it would react to your finger by trying to catch it using its lift-like arms. If feeling idle, it will even begin playing classic game Breakout on its the display. When back on its charging dock, Cozmo snoozes to sleep. Anki says the device’s battery lasts for about two hours, but it can charge in eight to 10 minutes.

Cozmo's battery lasts about two hours and charges in 10 minutes

We also played a whack-a-mole-style game in which Cozmo and I competed to see who could tap one of its blocks the fastest once a different block lit up with the matching color. I bested Cozmo on the easier difficulty level, but the robot speeds up its arms on the harder setting. Once it beat me, 5 to 2, Cozmo spun around and gloated. Tappeiner says there’s no way to determine for sure how Cozmo will react to any given situation, and part of the fun lies in the robot’s quirky randomness. Over time, Anki says the robot will become proficient enough at certain tasks to unlock new skills and games through the mobile app.

As far as design goes, WALL-E wasn’t Cozmo’s only inspiration. Anki went through more than 45 iterations, absorbing influences as wide-ranging as Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant and Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy to the Doozers, a race of robot-stiff construction workers from Fraggle Rock. Anki also tried to strike a delicate balance. The team took away Cozmo’s pupils, which ended up making it feel too human, but made sure the robot made eye-contact more frequently like a young child would.

Influences included The Iron Giant, WALL-E, and Astro Boy

Down the line, Anki says it will release a software development kit to let developers turn the robot into a low-cost platform for all sorts of robotics- and AI-related experiments. In that sense, Cozmo could be the next Microsoft Kinect, offering low-cost facial recognition, path planning, and an emotional software spectrum to tinkerers willing to spend $180 for the package.

"We’re going to give people unprecedented access to robotics with this," Tappeiner says. For now, though, Cozmo feels very much like a fun toy for kids — and a device quite a few adults may want to keep on their desks at work. Anki will have to make sure Cozmo can live up to its promise as a learning, ever-changing robot. "Cozmo doesn’t just move through his world — he can manipulate it," Tappeiner says. "People perceive manipulation as intelligence."

The robot butler of the future