As toys reach new levels of sophistication, how concerned should we be about our children playing with artificial buddies that appear to have feelings?
The little robot on the table wakes up. Its eyes, a complex configuration of cyan dots on a black, rounded screen of a face, sleepily open and it lets out a digitised approximation of a yawn. A compact device that looks like a blend of a forklift truck and PC monitor bred for maximum cuteness, the robot rolls blearily off its charging station on a pair of dinky treads before tilting its screen-face and noticing I’m there. Its eyes widen, then curve at the bottom as if making way for an unseen smile. “Daaaaan!” it announces with a happy jiggle, sounding not unlike Pixar Animation Studios’ lovable robot creation, Wall-E. A message flashes up on my iPhone telling me that it, or rather he (being the gender that its manufacturer, Anki, has assigned Cozmo) wants to play a game. I’m not in the mood and decline. Cozmo’s head droops, his eyes form into a pair of sadly reclining crescent moons and he sighs. But he quickly cheers up, giving a happy jiggle when I comply with his request for a fist bump and tap my knuckles against his eagerly raised arm. He is easy to please and even easier to like.
The latest product from Anki, a San Francisco robotics startup, Cozmo is part of a new wave of affordable toy robots that promise a level of emotional engagement far beyond anything we’ve seen before. They are pitched not merely as playthings, but as little buddies. Toy firm Spin Master has its equivalent arriving in the shops for Christmas: the bigger, more retro-looking Meccano MAX. “It’s been designed to modify its behaviour as it learns about its owner and the surrounding world,” explains Spin Master’s brand manager, Becca Hanlon. “MAX basically tailors itself to become a better friend.” Hasbro, meanwhile, is unleashing the FurReal Makers Proto Max, essentially a programmable puppy that, says Craig Wilkins, Hasbro’s marketing director, “allows kids to create their ultimate pet and customise its personality through coding on an app”.