As toys reach new levels of sophistication, how concerned should we be about our children playing with artificial buddies that appear to have feelings?
The little robot on the table wakes up. Its eyes, a complex configuration of cyan dots on a black, rounded screen of a face, sleepily open and it lets out a digitised approximation of a yawn. A compact device that looks like a blend of a forklift truck and PC monitor bred for maximum cuteness, the robot rolls blearily off its charging station on a pair of dinky treads before tilting its screen-face and noticing Im there. Its eyes widen, then curve at the bottom as if making way for an unseen smile. Daaaaan! it announces with a happy jiggle, sounding not unlike Pixar Animation Studios lovable robot creation, Wall-E. A message flashes up on my iPhone telling me that it, or rather he (being the gender that its manufacturer, Anki, has assigned Cozmo) wants to play a game. Im not in the mood and decline. Cozmos head droops, his eyes form into a pair of sadly reclining crescent moons and he sighs. But he quickly cheers up, giving a happy jiggle when I comply with his request for a fist bump and tap my knuckles against his eagerly raised arm. He is easy to please and even easier to like.
The latest product from Anki, a San Francisco robotics startup, Cozmo is part of a new wave of affordable toy robots that promise a level of emotional engagement far beyond anything weve seen before. They are pitched not merely as playthings, but as little buddies. Toy firm Spin Master has its equivalent arriving in the shops for Christmas: the bigger, more retro-looking Meccano MAX. Its been designed to modify its behaviour as it learns about its owner and the surrounding world, explains Spin Masters brand manager, Becca Hanlon. MAX basically tailors itself to become a better friend. Hasbro, meanwhile, is unleashing the FurReal Makers Proto Max, essentially a programmable puppy that, says Craig Wilkins, Hasbros marketing director, allows kids to create their ultimate pet and customise its personality through coding on an app.
Cozmo is the result of a long quest by Anki president and co-founder, Hanns Tappeiner, to bring fictional movie robots such as Short CircuitsJohnny Five, Star WarssR2-D2 or Wall-E into the real world. We watched a lot of movies and it became obvious that its very easy to forge an emotional connection with a movie robot, says Tappeiner. And that was so different from the functional robots we saw on a daily basis at Carnegie Mellon [University, where Tappeiner earned his PhD in robotics]. Working with animators and character designers from Hollywood studios such as Pixar, DreamWorks and Lucasfilm, Tappeiners team focused hard on creating a robot that was as engaging as possible. One of the fundamental things weve figured out in the last few years is that character and personality in technology are going to be a really big deal. Thats what we as a company are putting 99% of our efforts into.