From Cozmo to Vector: How Anki Designs Robots With Emotional Intelligence

Anki creates the AI-powered robots Cozmo and Vector, but it wants you to think of them as characters, not toys or machines.

(Image source: Anki)

The little robot on my desk knows my name and recognizes my face. He tells me when he needs maintenance. He has three cubes that he loves to stack, knock over, and play with. He'll also tell me when he's bored and wants to play a game. When he wins, he'll dance around. And if I beat him too many times, he'll get sad or throw a temper tantrum.

His name is Cozmo. And even though he's a 2-inch-tall toy robot, the people that created him don't want you to think of him as a toy or even as a machine. They want you to think of him as a character, like Wall-E, brought to life. Anki, the company behind Cozmo, says its mission is to “create robots that move you,” combining robotics and artificial intelligence to create technologies with which people can build emotional bonds.

Cozmo isn't an industrial robot by any stretch. But the AI behind him points the way forward for robotics at both the consumer and commercial level in terms of creating machines that can better understand and relate to the people around them. Companies are already developing AI to help autonomous cars recognize and respond to our emotions. Why shouldn't our toys and even our collaborative robots do the same?

Cozmo's setup is fairly straightforward. The robot moves around on treads. He comes with three electric “power cubes” and uses a lifter to manipulate them. Using a smartphone app, users can manually control him, instruct him to do simple tasks like stacking or arranging the cubes, play games with or against him, and even “feed” and perform maintenance on him. The robot doesn't require any real down and dirty maintenance, but his mood and performance will suffer if you let him get “hungry” or go too long without maintaining him. Maintenance consists of a mini game that requires you to mimic a sequence of button presses in order to tune Cozmo up. It's the sort of thing Cozmo's younger owners probably eat up (he's recommended for ages 8 and up).

In terms of functionality, he appears to be the latest step in a long tradition of hobbyist robots like the kind you used to find in kits at Radio Shack. They'd do basic things like follow lines on the ground or pick up and move objects...but in terms of personality, they were severely lacking. Toys like Hatchimals and Furby have already added this emotional element. But what they do is more smoke and mirrors—using call and response to elicit a series of pre-programmed gestures.

That's not to say Cozmo doesn't do some of the same thing. But where it sets itself apart is in how it uses AI, combined with its physical movements, to not only recognize and respond to its environment and the people it is interacting with, but to also act in a way that feels nuanced and lifelike.

A short film featuring Cozmo.

Cozmo implements AI for a lot of its functionality—particularly object recognition and machine vision for finding its cubes and recognizing people. But the emphasis is on using AI to give Cozmo the ability to convey emotions in a complex interplay of facial expression (he has two digital eyes), voice tone, and even body language. Cozmo won't just make a noise to let you know he's happy; his eyes will light up and he'll dance around in a circle. If you tell him you don't want to play a game right now, he'll dip his head in frustration and sulk away like a disappointed child. According to Anki, Cozmo can recognize and respond to the five basic human emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

Cozmo's app has a basic, kid-friendly coding tool called CodeLab, which lets you program him to act out some simple routines and actions. Some may be surprised to learn that the robot also comes with a full, open-source software development kit (SDK). Anyone with a working knowledge of Python can dig deeper into Cozmo's functionality and program him to perform even more sophisticated actions. The SDK also bypasses the family-friendly filters put on the app, so there are no restrictions on what you can have Cozmo say. The level of control that the SDK gives you over Cozmo is deep enough that a small community has cropped up online of folks making short films featuring the robot.

Four Pillars of Character Creation

And if people are animating Cozmo, that's exactly what Anki wants. “The goal with Cozmo was always to try to bring a character to life,” Mark Palatucci, Anki's head of cloud AI and data science, told Design News. “We tried to think of characters in films and movies like Pixar movies and really think about what it would take to bring that into the real world.”

Palatucci and his co-founders, CEO Boris Sofman and company president Hanns Tappeiner, started Anki in 2010 as an offshoot of Carnegie Mellon University's robotics program. After graduating, Palatucci said the team started with the goal of wanting to bring robotics, AI, and machine learning technology to mass market consumers. But they quickly found that at that time, all the work in those areas was being done in government research and military and industrial automation applications. “We saw an opportunity with cheaper hardware and mobile devices to bring this magic of robotics and AI into physical products at a price point that makes sense,” Palatucci said.

The perfect industry for that jumping off point ended up being toys and entertainment—a sector Palatucci said “was in many cases very stagnant and hadn't been touched by mobile [technology].”

The company's first product, Overdrive, was released in 2015. Overdrive is a racing car game reminiscent of the electric stock car games that were popular in the '80s and '90s. You build a custom race track and the other cars learn the track and battle against you.

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