Hanns Tappeiner types a few lines of code into his laptop and hits “Return.” A tiny robot sits beside the laptop, looking like one of those anthropomorphic automobiles that show up in Pixar’s Cars movies.
This is Cozmo, an artificially intelligent toy robot unveiled late last month by San Francisco startup Anki, and Tappeiner, one of the company’s founders, is programming the little automaton to do new things.
The programs are simple; he also teaches Cozmo to stack blocks, but they’re supposed to be simple.
Tappeiner is using Anki’s newly unveiled software development kit, an SDK, in coder parlance that he says even the greenest of coders can use to tweak the behavior of the toy robot.
The company claims the SDK is the first of its kind: a kit that lets anyone program such an intelligent robot, a robot that recognizes faces and navigates new environments and even mimics emotions.
Big-name venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who led Anki’s $50 million funding round in 2013, calls the company “The best robotics startup I have ever seen.” That may sound even stranger when you consider that Cozmo is a toy, a $180 gadget that might show up in a stocking at Christmas, but it also carries some truth.
When it comes to intelligent robots, Cozmo represents the state of the art.
Like so many others in the field, they admire the impressively mobile robots created by Google-owned Boston Dynamics, whose dog- and human-like droids radiate mechanical charisma.
Tappeiner questions how long it will be before these robots are genuinely useful.
“Does it make sense for us to create a farming robot or will it take 20 years to do that well? We can do this,” he says, nodding at Cozmo, “Really incredibly well.”
What’s more, he believes, Cozmo can provide a seedbed for the future.
“When we were in grad school,” says Anki CEO Boris Sofman, “You would have to pay $10,000 for a platform that had 10 to 15 percent of the capabilities of Cozmo.”
Nate Koenig, chief technology officer of the Open Source Robotics Foundation and a longtime robotics researcher, says Cozmo deserves some skepticism.
“Any robot that you can program to have even some basic level of emotional contact with a person is a great research tool,” he says.
Don’t we already have robots that are far smarter than this toy? Not really.
In the commercial world, robots often work on assembly lines or move stuff across warehouses.
Inside an Amazon distribution center, a Kiva robot just picks up a bin and moves it.
Yes, we’re moving toward robots that can respond to their environment and learn to do new things on their own.
At a lab in Austin, Texas, IBM is plugging robots into its Watson AI services, which can understand and respond to questions and requests at least in some cases.
Last year, the US Defense Department’s Darpa research arm held an extravagant contest for intelligent robots.
Google is now using a technique called reinforcement learning, one of the techniques that helped bootstrap AlphaGo, the Google system that cracked the ancient gamer of Go, to teach robots how to pick up random objects.
In some ways, Cozmo is not quite at the forefront of robotics research.
If Cozmo comes to the edge of a table, it might look scared.
Thanks to the new SDK, researchers might even decide to connect Cozmo to other AI engines, including deep neural nets, a possibility Tappeiner says Anki itself may explore as well.
Eventually, as hardware continues to improve, bots like Cozmo will be able to use AI like deep neural nets without needing to stay continuously connected to massive data centers in the cloud.