I'm sitting at a long conference table playing a game. My opponent and I each have a block in front of us and the top of each block lights up different colors. It's similar to the card game war: When both blocks flash the same color at the same time, the first of us to slap our block wins the round. My opponent isn't a person, however. It's a robot named Cozmo.
Cozmo — the latest creation from Anki, the company behind the AI-fueled car racing game Overdrive — is like a pint-sized combination of WALL-E and EVE from the movie WALL-E. He's small enough to fit on your hand, but packed with sensors and AI smarts. As you use him, Cozmo learns and reacts. He can identify and differentiate between you and other people, acts of his own accord, and has a face. He's absolutely delightful and the first "real" robot average consumers will be able to own (no, Roomba doesn't count). Cozmo works like this: After being charged, the robot can roll around, explore his environment, and play with his toys (the aforementioned boxes) on his own. But he can also take notice of you and the rest of your friends and family. Once he identifies you, you can enter your name into the accompanying app. Cozmo can say a few things and make noises (again, a lot like WALL-E or EVE), but conducts more important communications, such as asking if you want to play a game with him, all via the app. As you play and interact with Cozmo, his personality qualities may change. If he wins a game, for example, his confidence will rise, but if he loses, he may sulk; if you play the same game with him him over and over, he may eventually lose interest and want to play a different game, or play by himself. Cozmo can sneeze, yawn, laugh, nap — he has hundreds of actions and reactions. And since he's controlled by a true AI, even his creators don't quite know what the robot will do next in any given scenario.
The target audience for Cozmo is (perhaps unsurprisingly) kids and families, but for someone living solo in a pet-less apartment, he could also make for a pleasant companion on an otherwise boring afternoon. The games you play (such as the one I demoed, called Speed Tap) are simple in concept, but addictive. They might test a child's attention and motor skills, but also fuel a surprising competitive streak in adults. Until now, when you think of a robot — an R2-D2, a BB-8, or a WALL-E — and you think of real-world robots, the latter end up being only personality-less tools for shipping, vacuuming, or conducting surgeries. Cozmo is the first commercial robot that actually feels like a real robot. He senses his surroundings, knows you, and above all, he's not creepy. (He's kind of adorable.) Whether the toy itself interests you or not, Cozmo itself is a fantastic technological feat. Now, to make him at least three times as big and handle my household chores. Cozmo begins shipping in October for $179 and is available for pre-order today.