Cozmo is like a lovable Pixar character come to life on your desk

These days, AI-powered robots seem less a novelty than the logical confluence of a range of cutting edge technologies. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new location in Shanghai features a humanoid clerk powered by Chinese search engine Baidu’s machine-learning smarts, for instance, and a Japanese ‘bot co-authored a short-form novel that nearly nabbed a national literary prize.

But there’s a realm — toys — that’s seen such AI revolution largely pass it by: While dolls like the Internet-connected Hello Barbie and WowWee’s CHiP robotic dog have come close to approximating the sort of emotional responses you would like to see from a sentient being, they haven’t quite nailed it to the extent that AI in other industries has. But Cozmo, a new robot from San Francisco-based company Anki, is different.

“We did it just how Pixar and DreamWorks interpret an animated character.”

Cozmo is best described as a palm-sized dump truck: It balances on two tank-like treads, and has a vertically articulated, cube-shaped head and tiny forklift. It’s got a built-in speaker, too, plus a myriad of sensors including a gyroscope, accelerometer, and cameras embedded within an LED screen above its motorized body.

It’s best observed in action. In anticipation of Cozmo’s launch, Anki’s releasing a series of videos it calls “Cozmoments” — sketches which demonstrate the little ‘bot’s ability to exhibit human-like behaviors. The first, “Best Friend,” shows the Cozmo playfully tapping the tail of the sleeping dog.

It’s the most advanced product Anki’s team has ever created, CEO Borris Sofman told USA Today. Development began in the fall of 2011, and the current prototype has 325 parts. That may sound like technological overkill for what amounts to a kids’ toy, but Cozmo leverages all those moving parts to convey emotions far beyond what your average robot is capable of. Leave Cozmo alone for awhile and it will become bored, with the pupil-less eyes on its heads-up LED display morphing to a game of Pong.

Put the robot in an unfamiliar place, by contrast, and it’ll explore exhaustively, stopping ahead of any precipices before taking careful, cautious glimpses over the edge. And all the while, it’ll play a shifting soundtrack that indicates its current emotion: chirping and cooing sounds when it’s contented, screeches and squawks when it becomes frustrated, and musical melodies when it makes a discovery or wants attention.

Cozmo’s games exemplify its human-like idiosyncrasies. Some aren’t quite so formal — leave the rules undefined and Cozmo will pick up and stack tiny objects on its own, reacting only when you poke it or knock it over.

Others, however, are a tad more traditional. Speed Tap, for example, has the robot attempting to tap blocks of the same color opposite a human opponent. When it loses, it throws a robotic tantrum, swinging its lift-like arm up and down and motoring haphazardly around. And when it wins, it celebrates with an audible chime and smug expression.

The key to crafting convincing mannerisms, according to Bosman, was imbuing a bit of movie magic. “We did it just how Pixar and DreamWorks interpret an animated character,” he told The Wall Street Journal. To that end, Anki brought on longtime Pixar animator Carlos Baena to fine-tune Cozmo’s facial expressions and movements. Syncing Cozmo’s four motors to Maya, a film animation software platform, and Anki’s custom-designed workflow allowed animators to see movements on Cozmo prototypes in real time.

Spontaneity, too, was key. “The reason we love the robots we see in the movies so much is because they don’t just respond with the same canned responses — they surprise you,” Anki President and co-founder Hanns Tappeiner told The Wall Street Journal. “Cozmo never gives you the same reaction twice. The head movement, the arm movement, the ways his eye animate on his face, or the inflection of his voice — the combinations change to create personality.”

“It’s taken years, but our technology is finally to a point where we can build a robot with personality.”

The final piece of the puzzle? A living memory. Using computer vision, a form of facial recognition, Cozmo catalogs human faces and reacts accordingly. The effect is eerily human-like: Cozmo’s eyes reflect tepid surprise when it spots someone new, and unbridled joy when a familiar face returns.

Perhaps as impressive as Cozmo’s depth of personality is the technology that drives it. The robot’s companion app for iOS and Android, which pairs via Bluetooth, packs the “emotion engine,” the code that Cozmo uses to handle decision-making and situational awareness. That same code dictates Cozmo’s animations and expressions, with other data processing taken care of in the cloud, via Wi-Fi. The app also acts as a centralized hub for managing Cozmo’s activity. It’s where you initiate games with Cozmo, and how you associate names with faces that Cozmo recognizes. It’s also how you wake the robotic companion from a charging-induced slumber, if need be.

Cozmo isn’t quite polished, yet — it’s shipping in October — but Anki is launching pre-sales of the AI-powered companion this week. It’s available for the discounted price of $160 (normally $180), and ships with a charging station and non-removable battery that lasts “an hour and a half” on a 10-minute charge.

Cozmo is an impressive bit of technology, but it’s undeniably barebones. The app only sports a handful of games right now, and Cozmo lacks any sort of conversation capabilities or advanced voice recognition. But those might be coming. Anki plans to develop “story-based” activities and “give Cozmo a few friends” in the coming weeks, Tappeiner told The Wall Street Journal. And given the company’s pedigree, that’s not too far a stretch: Its debut toy, the AI-powered Overdrive series of racing cars, garnered praise from such tech titans as Apple CEO Tim Cook and former Disney President Michael Ovitz.

“It’s taken years, but our technology is finally to a point where we can build a robot with personality — and bring some of the things you see in the movies to real life,” said Tappeiner.

Pre-Order on Amazon

Article originally published in July 2016. 

Updated on 08-16-2016 by Kyle Wiggers: Added first advertisement for the Cozmo. 

Emerging Tech

Toilet-scrubbing robot takes over one of the world’s crappiest jobs

When it comes to jobs that none of us enjoy, scrubbing the toilet would have to rank pretty highly. So why not hand the job over to robots? Very soon you might be able to do exactly that.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in November, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to ‘Dracula’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Gaming

The best PS3 games of all time

Choosing the right PlayStation 3 game can be a conundrum, especially when there are nearly 1,500 titles to choose from. Thankfully, we've rounded up the best games to have ever made it to the platform.
Computing

Razer’s BlackWidow Lite is a mechanical keyboard designed for work and play

Razer's latest keyboard comes with a minimalist design that will appeal to professionals. But don't let the all-black aesthetics fool you, as the BlackWidow Lite comes with mechanical keys that makes it a great gaming companion.
Emerging Tech

Ancient crater the size of NYC discovered under the Greenland ice sheet

A huge crater has been discovered beneath the ice of Greenland, and is thought to be the result of a meteorite impact millions of years ago. The crater is one of the largest ever discovered, measuring 19 miles across.
Emerging Tech

Here’s how the InSight mission to Mars will confirm its landing to NASA

NASA's InSight mission has sent a lander to Mars. NASA researchers have now shared details on how they will monitor the touching down of the lander at the end of its 91 million mile journey.
Emerging Tech

Would you swap your keycard for a microchip implant? For many, the answer is yes

Put down your keycard! More people are turning to implanted RFID chips as their choice of workplace identification. Should we be worried about a world in which employees get microchipped?
Outdoors

‘Super magnesium’ may be the next wonder material for outdoor gear

Super Magnesium is a wonder material that is 30 percent lighter than aluminum, as strong as carbon fiber, cheaper to make, and 100-percent recyclable, making it much better for the environment.
Emerging Tech

Forget joysticks — the Guts Game is controlled by a sensor that you swallow

Researchers have created an unusual new game in which players swallow a biosensor and then compete to raise or lower the temperature in their gut. Sound crazy? Here's why it could catch on.
Emerging Tech

Step inside the Nepalese restaurant staffed by robot waiters

A robotics startup from Nepal has created a robot waiter called Ginger. It's capable of delivering food from kitchen to table, and can even engage customers in a bit of friendly banter as it does so.
Emerging Tech

Doctors could soon ditch stitches and seal skin wounds with lasers

Just like the dermal regenerator in Star Trek, physicians may soon be able to heal skin wounds using smart, laser-based technology. That's thanks to researchers from Arizona State University.
Emerging Tech

From tornado flushes to remote controls, modern toilets are flush with tech

With the global observance of World Toilet Day on November 19, we take a look at how the modern toilet in our homes and businesses have evolved, and how they are becoming smarter tools in the future.
Emerging Tech

NASA selects the all-important landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission

NASA said on Monday that the landing site for its much-anticipated Mars 2020 rover mission has the potential to "revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life."
Emerging Tech

NASA’s ‘space wheat’ is helping earthbound farmers grow crops quicker

Could NASA technology for growing plants on other planets help farmers improve crop yield here on Earth? According to researchers in Australia and the U.K., the answer is a resounding yes.