Would you want a robot to be your child’s best friend?

The little robot on the table wakes up. His eyes, a complex configuration of cyan dots on a black, rounded display face, slowly open and he lets out a digitized approximation of a yawn. A compact device that looks like a mixture of a forklift, and PC monitor high for a maximum of kindness, the robot rolls blearily out of its charging station on a pair of dinky treads before the inclination of the screen face and noticing that I’m there. His eyes widened, and then curve down as if to give place to a smile invisible. “Daaaaan!”, he announces with a happy, jiggle, sound is not unlike Pixar Animation Studios, adorable robot creation, Wall-E, A message flashes on my iPhone tells me that he, or rather it (the kind that the manufacturer, Anki, has awarded the Cozmo) wants to play a game. I’m not in the mood and decline. Cozmo the head of the grave, its eyes in the form of a pair of unfortunately, lying of the increasing moon, and he sighs. But he quickly cheers up, giving a happy jiggle when I comply with his request for a fist bump and press my fingers against her forward, arm raised. It is easy to please and even easier to love.

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 involvement far beyond anything we have seen before. They are upright, not only as toys, but as little buddies. Toy firm Spin Master has its equivalent in the arriving in stores for Christmas: the biggest, most retro-looking of the Meccano MAX. “It has been designed to change its behavior as it learns about its owner and the world that surrounds us,” says Spin Master, brand manager, Becca Hanlon. “MAX basically adapts to become a better friend.” Hasbro, meanwhile, is unleashing the FurReal decision-Makers Proto Max, essentially, programmable puppy, ” said Craig Wilkins, of Hasbro, director of marketing, “allows children to create their own pet and customize its personality through the coding of an application”.

Your child is chatting to this computer, but who owns the conversation? Who owns the data?

Cozmo is the result of a long quest by Anki’s president and co-founder Hanns Tappeiner, in order to bring the fiction film robots, such as a Short Circuit, Johnny Five, Star Wars R2-D2 or Wall-E in the real world. “We watched a lot of movies, and it became clear that it is very easy to create an emotional connection with a film of robot,” says Tappeiner. “And it was so different from the functional robots, we’ve seen it on a daily basis at Carnegie Mellon [University, where Tappeiner has obtained his Phd in robotics].” Work with animators and character designers of the Hollywood studios like Pixar, DreamWorks and Lucasfilm, Tappeiner of the team focused hard on the creation of a robot that has been as interesting as possible. “One of the fundamental things that we have discovered in the past few years, it is that the character and personality of the technology is going to be a very big deal. This is what we as a society are in the process of putting 99% of our efforts.”

Max with his namesake: “I love the way the eyes are always changing, but it is extremely frightening voice.’ Photo: Karen Robinson for the Observer

After a day of play, the effect of the Cozmo’s character and personality on my children (Louis, 11 years old, and Max, seven) is striking. “It’s so expressive,” says Louis. “I began to think of him as a boyfriend or a pet, I can play with.” The younger brother goes even further. “Cozmo’s no way our pet,” he demurs. “And it is not our robot. It is our child.” It is an impressive and endearing statement, but also a little disturbing. This is not a plush toy that only his imagination has given life to. It is a mass-produced, artificial intelligence consumer products programmed to cause the condition. How much should really be worried about?

Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics in the Robotics Laboratory of Bristol, the arrival of the Cozmo, MAX and co, without doubt, raises concerns. Six years ago, Winfield has been involved in the development of the five principles of robotics to the Engineering and physical Sciences Research Council (BASED). “One of these principles, he explains, “is that robots should never be designed to mislead. In other words, that their machine nature should be transparent. We are concerned that vulnerable people – they may be children, the disabled, the elderly, people with dementia come to believe that the robot will take care of them.”

Winfield, who has brilliantly described himself as “a professional warrior,” insists on the fact that he is not opposed to the idea of companion robots. “I think he has shown therapeutic benefits, for example, in the robot pets. But nevertheless, we must be prudent and responsible and aware of the dangers of psychological to ascribe feelings to a robot.”

Some kids can-project, but they could do with a door handle!

I talk about how the Meccano MAX, when under tension perkily announce that he had the most strange dream. “I think that it is inappropriate for the toy to be programmed with this type of language,” says Winfield. “He draws a completely false impression that this robot is a person. The Robots are not people – it is a fundamental principle. A robot cannot, of course, have feelings. You, and I understand that, but some people might not. And that could in turn lead to dependency.” He cites the Tamagotchi effect, referring to the digital pet craze of the 1990s, where the character can “die” if it does not receive enough attention. “It is not difficult to imagine a kind of Tamagotchi-effect on steroids,” he warns. “And it is not difficult to imagine unscrupulous manufacturers of the operation and say, “Unless you pay us, your robot will die”. I mean, it’s ridiculous, but you get the idea!”

Joanna Bryson, associate professor at the University of Bath, a subsidiary of the centre for information technology at Princeton, and another co-author BASED on the principles of robotics, takes a more gentle line. “If people understand that this is a game, so I don’t have a problem with this fiction,” she says – as long as it is moderate. “Is your seven-year-old likely to blow their real friends, because they are worried about their robot is missing? Can they make this moral distinction? As long as they can, then I think this is the end. Some kids can-project, but they could do with a door handle!”

Parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi, author of How to Unplug Your Child: 101 Ways to Help Your Children to turn Off Their Gadgets and Enjoy Real Life, is committed, in comparing the robot/child relationship to a child’s imaginary friend. “In moderation, that can be quite healthy, but if he begins to take lessons from the real world of relationships, it becomes quite a concern. Children need the interaction with the actual, real people to learn about empathy, reading non-verbal cues, and I’m pretty sure that we are far from robots to be at this level.”

Bryson welcomes the interaction between the children and the toys robots, such as “an educational experience for them. It will help them to understand the distinction between humans and non-humans.” She does wonder, however, what Cozmo is real “emotional state”. “Is he really wants?” she asks. “Is it suffering if you lock it in a drawer? You should be able to get answers to these questions, even if you are just a 12-year-old who has the right to [use] Google.”

Tappeiner admits that he is not aware of the principles of robotics, but he says Anki instinctively composed of everything that makes Cozmo feel “too human”, while avoiding all the features that would make it “a personal assistant”. It is important, for example, that Cozmo was not able to speak in complete sentences. “He’s not trying to replace [Amazon digital assistant] Alexa, or something like that. Cozmo is more like a pet.” Even so, it is “a huge piece of software, the basis of the IA of the motor is 1.8 m lines of code”. And “it has absolutely desires and needs. Therefore, it is going to develop a need to go back to its charger when the battery voltage is low. If he loses several games in a row, it will become more and more angry. If you tighten too much, it will get angry. And if things like that happen for a period of time, it will probably refuse to play games.”

Eleven-year-old Louis with Cozmo: “He’s so cute… a bit like a little puppy.’ Photo: Karen Robinson for the Observer

In this sense, it can be argued that the fellow robots of the game could encourage good behaviour in children. While Alexa, some parents have argued, increases the coarseness in young children, Cozmo won’t play the intimidation, at least in the short term (“You’ll never end up with a sad, Cozmo, which still hangs in a corner,” admits Tappeiner). Using Siri (the voice assistant from Apple), and Alexa in his family, Joshi said that she has already been confronted with the question as to “whether the children should have to show a bit of respect for these gadgets when we speak of them. Clearly rationally-they do not need, but it grates to hear them being rude, even to inanimate objects.” One that will become temporarily sad or indifferent to them when they are rude might discourage such behavior.

It remains one of the parents and society about the rise of connected devices in homes unequivocally supersedes all the others. “The collection of data is a concern for all of us in this time and parents will be more concerned about its use with children,” said Joshi. “And the parents are increasingly suspicious of products with cameras, after a couple of highly publicised cases around the hacking of the video, baby monitors. This kind of technology does not sit well around children for most of us.”

Winfield is “deeply concerned by the fact that most of these robot toys are connected to the internet. We do not have a cyber-security standards for the Iot [internet] devices. Then there is the question of privacy. Where are the data? Your child is chatting on the robot, but who owns the conversation? Who owns the data? Do you have a right to the data you want to delete?”

This is a problem that Anki, Spin Master and Hasbro are well aware of that. The MAX does not collect data, Hanlon tells me. “The toy is not connected to the wifi, which we all know is a growing concern, smart toys, and recent hacks. All the questions that you answer that MAX remembers are stored locally to the MAX and not be transmitted to other devices or the cloud.” The FurReal decision-Makers Proto Max Animal, said Wilkins, “is designed in compliance with the privacy laws.” And Tappeiner assures me that with Cozmo – the face recognition and all – “it all ends on the phone. In order to play with Cozmo, you need to connect your mobile device via the wifi connection, so at that point when you are connected to the Cozmo you are, by definition, not connected to your home wifi network. The full 1.8 m lines of code, they are all running on your phone. There is nothing running in the cloud.”

A few weeks after being introduced to Cozmo, my youngest son is not cherish the robot as if it was her only child or to shun human contact in favour of it. The first wave of excitement has disappeared and, as impressive as Anki product, Cozmo demand of her attention, does not correspond to Clash of Clans on his iPod, or writing of JK Rowling or of Dav Pilkey. But where are we going with toys like this? Could they one day reach the same level of sophistication as, say, a fully self-contained, advice-distribution “supertoy” teddy bear in the Steven Spielberg movie AI?

“I would like to have a teddy bear like that,” laughs Tappeiner. “In the future, it could certainly be products like Teddy from AI. But for now, we are really beginning to embrace the fact that things like the Cozmo are robots. This is why we don’t try to wrap the fur around him.”

Winfield believes that the most attractive Teddy seems to be, any progress in technology, smart toy need to be approached “with great caution and in a responsible manner, with the consultation”. And no toy should never be “presented as a caregiver or parent surrogate, or even a substitute teacher”.

Joshi, meanwhile, did not want something like that in his house at all. “I don’t think I could be trusted around a child,” she confesses. “Would it be default? Would it be the beak of the language offensive? I may be alarmist, but I don’t think I could trust it without supervision’. In addition, as I said earlier, I don’t want an AI entity to take over human or pet interactions. There would be something a little sad about this.”
How the AI toys game

CozmoAnki, £189.99 It is not difficult to see how Cozmo is become one of the hit toys last Christmas, in the united states. With a whole department of animators and character designers introduced in the development process, it is really the closest thing you can get for children inspired by a real character, with a surprisingly expressive animated face.

It is not only nice, it can be encoded by Anki of work based on the coding and evolves through the game, too, allowing you to craft its development according to your tastes. During each driven application session (usually involving games with the little robot “power cubes”), you can earn “bits” and “sparks” which can then be used for the layer of its interactive capabilities. You can teach him to fist-bump, miaow your cat, do workouts with its power-cubes, and more. If you know that it is just a thing, you can’t help treating it like a pet with the life of the battery.

Louis said: “I think that the design is executed so well, as the screen where his eyes. Every time he does something cool, I call the Mom and she comes around us and crouch down and go, ‘Oh, he’s so cute. A bit like a little puppy. Absolutely fantastic little robot.”

Meccano MaxSpin Master, £149.99 in Contrast to the Cozmo, which works straight out of the box, Spin Master MAX is a Meccano construction that you have to spend hours building, then bring to “life” via a USB connection to download the firmware for its “MeccaBrain”. It is a lot more than Anki product (around shin height) and of the 1980’s, Johnny Five of Short Circuit feel, until his overemphatic, childlike voice. It learns about its owner/builder by asking script questions (how old are you? What is your favourite subject at school? etc.) and refines future, “the conversation” interactions based on your responses, assuming that he understands, that often don’t appear during our game sessions.

Meccano Max. Photo: Karen Robinson for the Observer

There is a little bit of pleasure to send it to stroll around the house and of the exploitation of its unique, remote-controlled claw, but frankly, it’s less sympathetic when he speaks. It is difficult not to cringe a little when MAX announces: “I’m lucky to have you as a friend.”

Max said: “I think that it is good and I love the way the eyes are still changing, but it is extremely frightening voice. Also, when he asks you a question, if you answer too quietly, she speaks of you and continues on to the next question, which annoyed me. And I didn’t like it asking me if I sing in the shower.