Meet Cozmo – the little robot with a big, smug personality

Once you’re beaten, this toy can sing in a way best described as irritatingly triumphalist

Conor Pope meets Cozmo, a plucky little robotic interactive toy that's tipped to be in big demand this Christmas. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

A smart little robot called Cozmo stares into my eyes briefly when we first meet, before whirring manically after he satisfies himself that I’m human.

He offers me a “fist” to bump. But my fist is big and Cozmo is small – and I nearly send the thing spinning off the table and onto the floor.

My new robot friend is not delighted by this turn of events and makes its displeasure known by whirring angrily at me. We try the first bump again and this time I am more gentle. Cozmo’s whirr becomes more like a purr and it seems only thrilled we’re buddies now.

Our new status confirmed, in his “mind” at any rate, we play a couple of games. I put the “interactive power cubes” provided between us and we compete to see who has the fastest reactions and can grab the cubes first.

Every time Cozmo beats me – and he beats me a lot – he does a little victory dance. Then it starts to sing Row Row Row Your Boat in a fashion that could best be described as irritatingly triumphalist.

Changing world

It’s far from smug and intelligent robot toys that I was reared, but Cozmo – set to be one of the big toys this Christmas – is a small signpost to a changing world.

“What makes Cozmo special is his personality, his unique Artificial Intelligence personality,” says Catherine Hull, a spokeswoman for Anki, the US company that has given life to this little robot. “If you play with Cozmo, the more his personality changes as you change the way you interact with him.”

She’s not wrong. It does learn and it is smart enough to replicate human emotions in a way that, say, the Furbies or Tamagotchis of years gone by were supposed to do – but never really could.

It also looks for all the world like a Pixar creation come to life and that is almost exactly what we have here – the company employed the skills of artists from that studio to create the robot’s 1,200 or so animatronic movements.

“Our motivation at the start was: What would it take to bring a Pixar character to life?” Boris Sofman, Anki’s chief executive, said recently. The company’s aim was “to make him understand his environment and relationships”.

Navigate flat surfaces

The robot uses advanced sensor equipment to map the terrain and its small, manoeuvrable body can easily navigate flat surfaces, while onboard cameras can easily identify human features and the features of cats and dogs, and it is programmed never to forget a face.

The more you play with Cozmo, the more the software is able to work out his emotions and whether or not he is excited, scared, nervous, happy, sad or frustrated.

You can also use the app to programme new skills for this brainbox to learn. “It is a really great way for people to have their first step into coding and understand how easy it is to take some of these commands, which have lots and lots and lots of lines of programming,” Hull says.

At €199 Cozmo is not cheap, and only time will tell if it has the social skills to keep a child entertained long after Christmas Day. But even if not, the robot with a “personality” is only starting out on a journey which is likely to change the world.

The company – which is only seven years old – has been given more than $200 million by US venture capitalists to bring artificial intelligence and robotics into the home.