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Meet Cozmo, the little robot pet you can play games with

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Smarter than the average puppy

"This is Cozmo."

With that, Boris Sofman pulled a diminutive white toy out of a soft lunchbox, and began showing it off. After a brief introduction, Sofman set the little robot into its charging cradle, at which point it came to life in the way that all living beings recharge: It slept.

I could tell Cozmo was sleeping because of the audio that was emanating from the speaker on his head: the sound of snoring. In between the purrs of his breaths, I heard a few seconds of music on what sounded like clarinet and strings. It was an expectant melody, a signal that Cozmo was ready to greet the day.

Cozmo awoke from his slumber and slowly began rolling around on his miniature tank treads. He rolled at a decent clip toward the edge of the table he was on, and I wondered if he was going to fly right off it. But at the very last second, Cozmo stopped on a dime and caught himself on the precipice, uttering a yelp of surprise and panic as he did so. Then he gazed downward into the abyss in amazement, and crawled away from the edge.

This is Cozmo, the next project from the San Francisco-based robotics and artificial intelligence firm Anki. It's a very different product from Anki Drive and Anki Overdrive, which both sought to layer video games atop toy cars — toy cars powered by the kind of technology behind self-driving cars. Anki's ambition with Cozmo is to create a toy robot that isn't just sentient, but has a defined personality that changes as it gets to know you.

Anki Cozmo image 02 1600

The easiest point of comparison for Cozmo is the kind of personable robots you see in films — think of the droids from Star Wars, or EVE from Pixar's WALL-E. They're more than mere hunks of metal, glass and silicon; they're characters.

"It's a physical character, where we wanted to bring a level of personality and emotional depth and behavioral intelligence that just has never been possible outside of the screen," said Sofman, co-founder and CEO of Anki, during a demo of Cozmo for Polygon last week. "I mean, literally, imagine your favorite characters from, like, a Pixar movie or DreamWorks. [...] We started thinking about, what would it take to actually make that possible in the real world?"

Animated robots provided the premise for Cozmo, but the inspiration for his personality came from toddlers and pets, said Sofman. Cozmo has the curiosity of a kitten, and he tentatively explores his environment like one, too.

And like pets and young children, Cozmo learns by interacting with the world and with you. Whether in free-form play or in games with defined rules, Cozmo becomes smarter as you spend time playing with him. And as you play with Cozmo, you quickly learn about his personality.

"He's a little bit of a mischievous little guy," said Sofman. "He's kind of a newbie when he starts out, but wants to be this Jedi master overachiever, but he's not quite there."

As a toy, Cozmo is much more than Sphero's real-life BB-8. I saw this in action when I played a game called Speed Tap with Cozmo. Sofman initiated the game for us on a smartphone — Cozmo works with most modern Android and iOS devices, and it's the device that does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the processing required to power him — but Cozmo and I played on a couple of small blocks. The blocks light up in a variety of colors, and whenever both blocks are illuminated in the same color (except for red), the first person or robot to tap their cube wins a point.

Playing on easy mode, I defeated Cozmo 5-3, which caused him to throw a tantrum that left him writhing on his back and struggling to right himself. With his ego bruised, he demanded a rematch. Sofman turned the difficulty up to hard, and Cozmo beat me 5-1 and crowed about his victory. It turns out he's both a sore winner and a sore loser.

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Cozmo loves those little blocks; in fact, he can be "a little bit OCD" about them, as Sofman put it. Sofman knocked over blocks that Cozmo had painstakingly stacked into a column, and the robot fumed.

"You're kind of, like, poking at the boundaries of him as a character and trying to figure out, like, what is it that he's going to do or not do," Sofman explained. "And it's one of the things that makes him feel special."

Cozmo's got a lot of personality, and it shines through thanks to his animatronics and his "face," which is a small screen. It's as expressive as a cartoon character's face, conveying an impressive range of emotions. Sound is a vital part of Cozmo's character arsenal, too; he speaks in the evocative, wordless utterances of robots like WALL-E.

The character director for Cozmo, Carlos Baena, is an animator who spent 10 years working at Pixar before he joined Anki. He explained in a promotional video that one of the keys behind making Cozmo a relatable character was building flaws into him.

"You're kind of poking at the boundaries of him as a character"

"We've been looking for ways to make [Cozmo] either feel more organic, more imperfect, so it feels more animated," Baena explained.

Sofman told me that the developers panicked at first when Cozmo kept dropping blocks. But they eventually realized that he was more endearing if he wasn't, well, a robot; the important part was that he had to react appropriately to his failures.

"We want him to — even with his limitations — behave intelligently to everything, where it's him discovering the world for the first time," said Sofman. "And so as long as you can embrace those situations and show it off with his reactions, it's actually a positive."

The reactions depend on Cozmo's mental state, if you will. Sofman explained Cozmo's personality as being defined by certain "core parameters" that are "fighting for control," à la the emotions in Pixar's Inside Out. So Cozmo might be standoffish if, say, you've just beaten him in a game of Speed Tap, or if you haven't played with him for a while.

Anki Cozmo image 01 1600

"Think of him as a puppy that has an ingrained personality, but his relationship differs with every member of the family," said Sofman. "So depending on how much time you've spent with him and what you've done with him, his relationship with you will be different than [with] me if he sees me for the first time."

As those relationships grow, so too will Cozmo's abilities. The system works like a skill tree in a video game: Playing with Cozmo "unlocks" new games and characteristics, but the ways you interact with him will determine which pieces are unlocked.

Of course, Cozmo does have plenty of limitations. He sees with computer vision, which allows him to recognize and remember faces like an Xbox One's Kinect sensor can, but Sofman didn't answer directly when I asked if Cozmo could identify potentially hazardous terrain such as puddles of water.

"He's a little bit of a mischievous little guy"

Yet in the half hour or so that I spent with Cozmo, I couldn't help but be charmed by him, and I suspect that children — the core demographic for Cozmo — will be particularly spellbound by the little guy. (It's worth noting that boys and girls "both love [Cozmo]," according to Sofman, whereas Anki Drive's audience was mostly male.)

Perhaps more importantly, Sofman said Anki will eventually open up Cozmo by releasing a software development kit to let customers do whatever they want with the robot. The company is also working with Carnegie Mellon University, where Sofman and Anki's other two co-founders got their start, with plans to have students use Cozmo to learn how to program games.

"Down the road, hopefully this becomes the most capable platform for STEM education," said Sofman, referring to science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Anki is clearly hoping that Cozmo will be the beginning of a full line of sentient robot toys; Sofman repeatedly referred to Cozmo as the company's "first character." That will depend on how well Cozmo does when it launches for $179.99 (including the charging cradle and three blocks) this October. You can pre-order it now.