It’s a remarkably strange experience when you are defeated by a robot.
You feel a little foolish or wonder if the world is going to end at some point. For now, a robot can win a game where you tap on the side of a block. Tomorrow, they might lock us up in a cage. OK, that’s a far-future doomsday scenario and a bit on the gloomy side, but there are prominent tech luminaries, Elon Musk among them, who worry about this happening.
The robot that defeated me is called the Cozmo, and it’s about the size of a child’s hand. I’m testing it for a few reasons. (See Dean Takahashi’s review here.) One is that the robot, which costs $180, might be an excellent holiday gift. It chirps and smiles, turns around like a highly caffeinated forklift, and seems to have an intelligence that other bots like this can’t quite muster. It recognizes your face and can sulk when it loses. There’s a hint of R2-D2 and a family resemblance to WALL-E.
You connect to the bot over Wi-Fi from your phone. This is a simple process, but the company behind Cozmo — called Anki — makes sure it’s still fun. You see pictures of the bot, a few quick tips, and several training videos before you play any of the games. My favorite game involves two small blocks that light up. When they show the same color, you have to tap faster than the Cozmo. Another one involves snatching the block away quickly.
It’s a bit disconcerting in some ways. Cozmo is lightning fast. You get the feeling it is letting you win a few times and that the programming is intended to provide the illusion of gratification. In several contests, I won even when I was hardly paying attention to the colors. The bot seemed to pause as though it was waiting for the human to figure out what to do. In closer matches, including a few where my kids (who have much faster reflexes) played, Cozmo seemed to work harder.
I’m also interested in the bot because of how the AI works. There are many bots that can perform mundane tasks, like vacuum the carpet in your living room. These bots don’t portray human-like characteristics; they just scan the room and do their job. Cozmo is trying to convince kids (and adults) that it has a personality, that there’s a higher entertainment value because the bot can imitate human speech and interact with you in a personal way.
This is the part that’s so hard to do — a combination of personality and intelligence. Many bots, like the old Sony Aibo robotic dog, had personality but limited intelligence. The iRobot and Dyson vacuums have utility and intelligence, but no personality. Cozmo has both. You feel compelled to keep playing the games (and wait for new additions in the app) because you’re drawn to the personality of the bot and irritated by the fact that the bot can actually defeat you.
The AI is not exactly on par with IBM Watson, but you can see the intelligence play out in real time. The bot adapts to your own intelligence. It knows if you are getting better at the games and will match wits with you. It creates a “memory map” of the world and uses objects like the cubes to determine where it can roam. For example, it might recognize that the cubes are all a few inches away, so it can obviously go a few inches farther into the environment. Take that, Tesla!
I love how the bot reacts to playtime. If the bot is powered on, it will start roaming around like WALL-E, looking for a human player and expressing loneliness. It has three different AI modes, including explore, socialize, and play.
What does this all mean? As someone who covers chatbots each day, I’m waiting for that point — similar to the Uncanny Valley — when a bot seems to know more than me and has enough of a personality that I enjoy having a conversation. I like several chatbots and use them, including Ozlo and Mezi (which is mostly AI-assisted), but I’m not exactly drawn to them yet. And I know it is easier to look for my own flights on Expedia, especially if there are any complicated plans.
The Cozmo gives me some hope. Every person who interacted with it over the weekend felt like it had some life and intelligence; they didn’t want to stop playing when someone else took over. Maybe we’ll look back at a small robot like this and realize it’s when AI finally materialized.