PITTSBURGH (AP) – Robots haven’t taken over the world … yet.
But they have taken over Christmas.
Meet Cozmo, a Pixar-like toy truck with artificial intelligence software so advanced it can recognize the family pet. It’s one of the hottest toys this season. Cozmo will challenge you to games and yelp and flail in terror if it’s about to drive off a table – but won’t go over the edge.
“We’re right at this edge where people are figuring out how to make physical robots that are doing something fun,” said Hanns Tappeiner, co-founder & president of Anki, the company behind Cozmo and OVERDRIVE, a live-action racing game in which you race against a computer car equipped with technology similar to a self-driving car.
“They’re not toys. We’re not sure what to call it,” said Tappeiner, a Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute graduate who founded Anki with classmates Boris Sofman and Mark Palatucci. “This is a different class of entertainment. It does, especially on the Cozmo side, feel like an artificial version of a pet.”
Robotic toy sales have grown 85 percent since 2013, according to data from The NPD Group, which studies the toy industry. Consumers spent $336 million on robotic toys and the like between November 2015 and October 2016 with about 70 percent of that coming around Christmas.
The Hatchimal, an impossible-to-find, fury robotic animal that hatches from an egg and can learn to walk and talk and was the top selling toy within one week of its launch, said Juli Lennett, a U.S. toys industry analyst at The NPD Group. The $59.99 Hatchimals, from the Canadian toy makers Spin Master, quickly sold out in stores and now are going for twice to four times that online.
Other hot robots this season include Anki’s Cozmo; the BB-8 droid from “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” made by Boulder, Colo.-based robotics company Sphero and controlled by an armband; and CHiP, a robotic dog from WowWee.
Robotic toys aren’t new, said Tom Lauwers, chief roboticist at Pittsburgh-based BirdBrain Technologies, maker of Finch Robot, which can be used to teach elementary school students computer programming,
Robots of old would bore kids in about eight to 10 hours as their reactions and movements became predictable, Lauwers said. Robots now can engage children in a more robust manner. They react; they remember; they learn.
“The shift in the last couple, three to four years has been artificial intelligence being built in,” Lauwers said. “What they are leveraging to make that AI happen are smartphones and iPads and tablets.”
The AI that powers Cozmo, which sells for about $180, runs on a smartphone or tablet synced to the robot over wireless internet, Tappeiner said. The cars racing in OVERDRIVE, which starts at about $150, sync over a Bluetooth connection. The folks at Anki could not have fit the computer power needed to run Cozmo or OVERDRIVE on the devices themselves, Tappeiner said. Cozmo is about the size of a coffee cup but runs on 1.2 million lines of code – 10 times the amount of the average iPhone app, more than double the 400,000 lines of code on the space shuttle and about half the code behind the F-22 Raptor.
Tappeiner said it was only within the last two years that phones became powerful enough to handle an app like Cozmo. That computing power allows Cozmo to act and react in ways similar to fictional robots like Wall-E, R2D2, Johnny Five and Baymax, Tappeiner said.
Cozmo’s camera, hidden in the robot’s mouth, records images at 15 frames per second. It has the same sensors that drones use to stay aloft and drop sensors to know when it’s about to fall off a table.
“The robot has an actual personality,” Tappeiner said. “It will see your face, recognize you, know your name, recognize new people and make decisions on all of those things.”
Anki’s trio of co-founders didn’t start out making toys. The three met while at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in 2005. Tappeiner described the three as “hard-core roboticists.” One studied path planning; another dove into the theoretical side of artificial intelligence. Tappeiner worked with robots for remote surgery and bomb disposal.
“It’s a big leap on the outside, not a big leap on the inside,” Tappeiner said about moving from working on bomb disposal robots at CMU to Cozmo and OVERDRIVE at Anki. “The technologies, the computer vision, the path finding, they are the same.”
Anki spun out of CMU in 2010. The next year, the team moved to San Francisco.
But the team hasn’t lost touch with its Pittsburgh robotic roots. Tappeiner said they come back often to talk and work with CMU students. Teams of students at the university are hacking into Cozmos in their courses to try their own robotic algorithms and software.
Cozplay is a team of students at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center that has been working with a dozen Cozmos for about 14 weeks. Their lab is littered with Cozmos and the cubes the robot plays with. The team is designing new games – like a version of tic-tac-toe and Pong – and new applications – like a chance to go on a date with Cozmo and maybe get married – for the robot.
“We wanted to explore his capabilities,” said Abhishek Ambre, a second-year student working on the team.
The team has shared their work with Anki and with other developers playing with the robot’s open software. They said feedback has been positive.
“Take me, eight years ago, when I was at CMU, I would have given my pinkie at least to get access to something like this,” Tappeiner said.