Bots_alive uses your smartphone to drive artificially intelligent spider robots

Artificial intelligence is all the rage in robotics these days, and for good reason: Properly implemented, it has the potential to program ‘bots on the fly. That’s the promise behind Cozmo, the AI-powered robot from Anki. And it’s the conceit of the Professor Einstein, the intelligent toy from Hanson Robotics.

But those toys and others react in predictable ways to changing contexts and situations. One startup, though, purports to have developed an algorithm capable of generating entirely new behaviors dynamically.

It’s called bots_alive, and it’s the brainchild of Brad Knox. Knox, who completed a dissertation in artificial intelligence at the University of Austin, worked with the Personal Robotics Group at MIT’s Media Lab on “Learning from the Wizard,” a project in which a robot learns to emulate its puppeteer’s control. It’s research that informed the development of bots_alive, a low-cost AI robotics platform.

The impetus, Knox said, was to design a robot that behaved in a personable, human-like way. “We all want robots we can interact with, but there aren’t any products on the market that come close,” he said. “It came out of conversations about complex AI in research. We wanted to make something that’s valuable now — deliver on the promise of machine learning, given the limitations of current technology.”


The novelty of bots_alive lies in the way it interacts with its surroundings. AI programmers typically give robots personalities with decision trees, Knox explained, dictating the rules by which they abide when behaving in certain ways. But true artificial intelligence of the kind embodied by bots_alive is entirely free form. “We don’t always know what the robot will do,” he said.

It requires a bit of human guidance, initially. An “improviser” operates the robot over a long period of time, generating data in what Knox calls “puppet sessions.” From that data, the bots_alive machine learning algorithm generates a model, assigning probabilities to outcomes. The end result, Knox said, is “lifelike authenticity” — a robot personality that reacts subtly but differently to changing environmental conditions.

It’s alive!

Knox demonstrated the technology’s potential during a Skype conversation. He placed the robot near a handful of blue blocks and red blocks, and defined two simple rules: The robot was to move toward blue blocks and perceive red blocks as barriers.

First, he placed a blue block in the center of the robot’s vision. It moved imperfectly, hesitatingly toward it. (Knox described the motion as “authentic” and “organic.”) Then, Knox placed a blue block behind a wall of red blocks. The robot easily charted a path around the wall.

“Through real-world interaction, we were able to affect the development of its behavior.”

The next scenario was a little more challenging: An unbreakable barrier of red blocks encircling the robot and a blue block just beyond reach. Impressively, the robot broke through the barrier, inching backward and forward until it managed to create an opening in the barrier through which it could escape.

It’s an example of spontaneous behavior, Knox said — of the robot doing something the team didn’t train it to do. “Through real-world interaction, we were able to affect the development of its behavior.”

It’s not the only example. In play tests, users have placed blue blocks at the top of stacked red blocks, Knox said, and the robot has knocked them over. “Nowhere in the operations data is it told to push the blocks,” he said.

bots alive 2

And this is just the beginning. Over-the-air software updates will enable new features like nonverbal signs of social interaction between robots, Knox said. If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its first stretch goal, users will be able to pit two robots against each other in a robot battle to the death. And enterprising programmers will be able to teach the robots new skills.

Knox believes these robots have disruptive potential. That’s thanks in part both their ease of use, he said — bots_alive leverages a smartphone for processing and a system of QR codes to track the cubes’ and robot’s position — and crucially to their price point. “It’s a fun and varied user experience,” he said, “and it’s affordable compared to other robots with cutting-edge AI.”

And when it comes to the software’s applicability, the sky’s the limit, Knox said. “It’s very easily translatable to any remote-controlled robot that’s controlled via Bluetooth,” he said. “We don’t have explicit plans, but one of the main things that we’re looking forward to in the Kickstarter campaign is what people would value. If there’s a very strong, resounding call, then we’ll consider it.”

Bots_alive launches on January 24. It’s expected to ship later this year. For $60, you get the full kit, including the Hexbug Spider, decals, five vision blocks, an IR blaster, and the mobile app. If you pay $85, you get the same kit plus an extra Hexbug Spider. You can learn more on the company’s website or back it on Kickstarter right now.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.

Take to the virtual skies with these free flight simulators

You don't have to spend the entirety of your paycheck to become a virtual ace, at least when it comes to flight simulation. Our list of the best free flight simulators will let you unleash your inner Maverick.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Exclusive: Take a look at what a next-generation 5G phone will look like

With 5G phones debuting at MWC in mere days, there is discussion about whether they will be clunky bricks that die after a few hours? A reference design from Qualcomm offerrs a glimpse of the future: This is what 5G phones will look like.

Xiaomi Mi 9 will be one of the first phones with monster Snapdragon 855 chip

Xiaomi's next major smartphone release will be the Mi 9, and the company hasn't held back in giving us a good look at the phone, revealing the design, the camera, and a stunning color.

Focals succeed where Google Glass fumbled (but do we really need smartglasses?)

It’s been seven years since Google took the wraps off Google Glass. Now, we’re finally getting a modern-day equivalent we want to wear. North’s Focals combine subtle style with an intuitive interface to craft smartglasses you’ll…

Galaxy Watch Active isn't official yet, but you can see it in Samsung's own app

Samsung may be about to resurrect its Sport line of smartwatches under a new name: The Galaxy Watch Sport Active. Leaks and rumors are building our picture of the device at the moment.

Stop buying old tablets, says Samsung, buy the new Galaxy Tab S5e instead

Samsung has launched the Galaxy Tab S5e -- the E is for Essential -- a reasonably priced tablet that includes many of the features we like from the Tab A 10.5, and the Tab S4. Here's what you need to know.

Bag yourself a bargain with the best budget tablets under $200

The battle for your budget tablet affections is really ramping up. Which tablet, costing less than $200, should be commanding your attention? We take a look at some different options for the budget-conscious.

What is Wi-Fi 6? Here's a look at the next evolution of the wireless standard

We're exploring the new naming convention for wireless standards, how it affects the devices you buy, and what the upcoming Wi-Fi generation is changing for the better.
Home Theater

Samsung accidentally leaks its new Galaxy Buds ahead of launch

It's been all but certain that Samsung would launch a successor to its Gear IconX wireless earbuds soon, but a newly leaked photo and recent FCC certification document seems to indicate that the debut is very close.
Home Theater

Hi-res streaming audio service Qobuz arrives in U.S., threatens Tidal’s monopoly

For several years, Tidal enjoyed a monopoly on hi-res music streaming in the U.S. Now, French company Qobuz is here to offer some competition with a variety of monthly plans starting at $10 a month.

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.