Meet Cozmo, the AI 'robot pet' influenced by Wall-E and R2-D2

Cozmo, the AI-powered robot from US firm Anki, is set to be a popular choice for children this Christmas - but it isn't a toy, according to UK marketing director Jeremy Corenbloom.

The device launched in the US last year and in September arrived in the UK, where it has been promoted on TV and in cinemas as part of a global campaign created by Wieden & Kennedy.

The inspiration for Cozmo came from the rich history of robots and similar characters on the big screen, Corenbloom said.

"We’ve had these kind of characters sort of dangled in front of us, but they’ve never been tangible or real," he said. "Our ambition was to ask ourselves what would happen if you were to try to bring the kind of star you see in a movie to life."

Though Corenbloom wouldn’t be drawn on specific characters, Cozmo seems to bear some similarities to the likes of Pixar’s robot hero Wall-E.

This isn’t a total coincidence, as Anki employed animators that had previously worked at Pixar and Dreamworks to create both Cozmo’s eye display, and its movement set. "When you look at the way that he’s been animated, many of those techniques have been borrowed from Hollywood," Corenbloom confirmed.

He agreed that Cozmo is also influenced by the legacy of the beloved robot duo of the Star Wars series, C-3PO and R2-D2.

"It’s not just the Star Wars robots themselves, but the way we were brought up to see the characters interact with those robots," Corenbloom said.

"If you think of the characters in those movies and the relationships they were able to form with robots, it was always peer to peer, and that’s very much been the inspiration behind how we brought Cozmo to life. He’s your sidekick, your friend, he’s not subservient to you."

This aspect of the robot is crucial to its appeal, Corenbloom said – insisting that it should not be seen as a toy, but more of a "robotic pet".

Cozmo’s complex personality – which includes aspects of stubbornness and irritability, as well as affection – meant its users, especially children, were able to develop a more profound relationship with it than with more straightforward AI platforms, he added.

"By having a personality that kids and people generally respect and adore, it means they respond to him in a very human way and a way that as parents we want our kids to behave," Corenbloom said. "When Cozmo approaches the edge of a table, we do get nervous and concerned because we don’t want him to fall off and hurt himself."

When people beat Cozmo at one of the games it is able to play, it will begin to sulk – at which point children will often feel sorry for him, Corenbloom said. "That governs the way they interact with him – we’ll often see on the second game they’ll try and  let him win," he added.

"It makes you realise, he’s very much mimicking human behaviour. Because he doesn’t always behave in a positive way, you have a greater sense of something happening under the hood which is real. Those negative emotions are every bit as important, because that’s what helps you to regulate your behaviour."

As well as being a robot that interacts with users straight out of the box and learns about its environment over time, Cozmo can be programmed by users in a range of ways that cater for different levels of coding ability.

At one end, there is a full SDK (software development kit), written in Python, which allows experienced developers to make maximum use of Cozmo's set of actions. 

This is complemented by Code Lab, a simple and accessible smartphone app aimed at children that allows them to program simple commands by dragging and dropping coloured blocks.

As of last week, Code Lab has introduced a "vertical grammar", an expansion that aims to offer a middle ground by allowing budding developers to use much more of the functionality, while keeping the colourful visual interface.

"We knew we were bringing something special to life," Corenbloom said. "Our philosophy is to be able to make that tech accessible so people can learn."

Watch Anki's Jeremy Corenbloom demo-ing Cozmo