Social Robots: New Publication on Medium

Last week I was at SpeechTek 2016 and I participated on a panel about the social impacts of conversing robots. It was a great experience and the panel started an interesting discussion that still continues.

Social RobotsI was inspired to start a publication on the topic of Social Robots on Medium.

Why Medium? Medium seems to be getting a lot of activity these days and some of my favorite stories are posted there, like the articles written as part of the Chatbots Magazine.

I’ve very interested in what I’ll call the “chatbot movement” and I write a lot about conversational UIs and conversational commerce at Opus Research. But I’m even more interested in voice interactive devices and the opportunities they present.

The first article I’ve posted in the Social Robots publication is called Shooting the Breeze About Social Robots.  I try to share some of the highlights from the SpeechTek keynote panel discussion, which included Peter Krogh of Jibo and Leor Grebler of UCIC.

Please have a look at the article and, if you feel so inclined, share it. I’d like to get others to contribute to the publication, so if you’re interested in the social robots topic, reach out to me via your favorite channel and let’s talk!




SpeechTek 2016 Offers Opportunities to Talk about Connected Toys and Conversational Robots

Next week at SpeechTek 2016 I’ll be joining others to discuss the exciting topic of connected, conversational devices.

I’m looking forward to participating on a keynote panel next Tuesday, May 24th on the topic of “Social Impact of Conversing Robots.” Peter Krogh of Jibo will moderate the panel and I’ll be joined by Leor Grebler of UCIC and Bruce Balentine of Enterprise Integration Group. Some of the areas we may cover include what people might want to talk to robots about, where the content told by robots will come from, how much robots will know about us and how that might drive the conversation, and what technological advances are needed to make robots better conversational partners.

Conversational ToysOn Wednesday, May 25th, I’ll be giving a presentation entitled “Talking Toys: Technology and Outlook.” There is a lot  going on in this field right now. Many toy makers and startups are experimenting with connected devices to both explore what these devices can offer consumers and to test out the market.

Internet-connected dolls that talk are still controversial. But there’s little doubt that conversational toys will be part of the future. There have been and will continue to be growing pains around security, privacy, and even conversational content for talking toys. We’re still in the early days of defining standards and understanding how regulations like COPPA factor into the development of safe and engaging connected devices designed for children. Even devices like the Amazon Echo, which aren’t considered “toys,” offer a glimpse into what types entertainment and educational content are possible with voice interfaces.

I’ll explore both the challenges and opportunities of talking toys in my presentation and I’m hoping for a lively discussion. If time permits, we’ll have some connected devices available to demo. We can also demo the work we’ve been up to at, where we’re building a marketplace of content designed for conversational toys and devices.

HitchBOT Talking Robot Sets Off Across USA Tonight

Do you remember hitchBOT? The talking robot made news last year when it used its disarmingly silly looks and sometimes chatty personality to successfully hitchhike across Canada. The talking robot also hitched rides across Germany and the Netherlands. HitchBOT is now preparing to set off on new adventures across the USA.

hitchBOTArmed with a bucket list of American sites it wants to see and some improved technology, hitchBOT will be placed somewhere in Salem, MA tonight. It will wait patiently on the side of the road for some kind stranger to pick it up and transport it a little closer to its ultimate destination of San Francisco, CA.

The robot is the invention of two Canadian communications professors, Dr. David Harris Smith and Dr. Frauke Zeller. It’s a simple design. HitchBOT doesn’t have any moving parts. But, according to an article in Beta Boston, the robot comes equipped with a GPS, microphones, speakers, speech recognition software, and Cleverscript coding. Like a simple chatbot, it can answer basic questions and even look up information in Wikipedia.

There’s a video in which hitchBOT talks about its plan for travel across the USA. I looked on YouTube for examples of hitchBOT really conversing with someone. Here’s a video that shows a pretty idealized version of picking up the robot and chatting with it. It seems the technology isn’t always so cooperative, though, as can be seen in this amusing video of a German journalist trying to interview hitchBOT.

In this video interview, the hitchBOT creators make it clear that their simple talking robot was never meant to wow people with fancy technology. They describe the robot as an emergent piece of cultural theater that’s meant to help us think about how we adopt and integrate technology into our social and cultural life.

It’s an interesting experiment. HitchBOT has just enough of a backstory to make it (him/her) interesting. And the fact that the robot has definite travel goals that it needs help achieving seems to awaken the neighborly instinct in people.

You can keep up with hitchBOT’s travels by checking out the tracking map on the robot’s website. We’ll never know about the conversations it has along the way, but we hope they’re good ones.

Happy Trails and Safe travels, hitchBOT!

Blue Frog Launches Buddy Companion Robot Campaign

Seems the wait is almost over for people who’ve been dreaming for years of smart, talking companion robots. Jibo was a big deal when the crowdfunding campaign introduced the futuristic social robot about a year ago. To date, Jibo has raised a monumental $3.7M in crowdfunding.

Then there was a personal robot from Robotbase. And don’t forget Pepper from Aldebaran.

Buddy Companion RobotNow there’s the announcement of Buddy, a companion robot offered by the French robotics company Blue Frog. The response to the campaign has been huge. In just six days, enthusiastic supporters have pledged over $185K, which is already $85K more than the $100K campaign goal.

People really want a personal robot! Well, at least the techie early adopter types on crowdfunding sites want one. It remains to be seen how large the market for these products will be, but if they can deliver on even some of their promises, there’s bound to be demand.

Jibo and Robotbase’s robot are both still on preorder, meaning neither robot is shipping yet. Blue Frog says that Buddy’s design is complete and the Indiegogo campaign is to raise money to start production. The Indiegogo page indicates that the first Developer kit version of Buddy will ship by the end of the year, with the Classic Edition shipping in May 2016.

Blue Frog is building the robot, which moves around on wheels, on an open framework using the Unity3D gaming platform and OpenCV. They seem to be courting developers to join the Buddy Developer Program and expand Buddy’s capabilities.

Out of the box, Buddy is said to have speech recognition, text-to-speech, human and object detection, recognition, and tracking, real time house tracking, remote control, and autonomous obstacle avoidance. The demo video shows Buddy interacting with people in a conversational way, answering questions, helping children with homework, reading stories, playing hide and seek, and performing a whole range of other tasks to support the family.

Buddy is like a cross between Amazon Echo and R2-D2. We live in exciting times! It’s clear from Buddy’s design that he’s meant to be cute and cuddly. His shape is reminiscent of E.T. You half expect to hear him say something about phoning home.

Like so many others, I’m anxious to see this little robot guy (and Jibo and the others) come to life. The first iteration of Buddy will understand both French and English. No matter what the language, the possibilities seem limitless.

Building a Chatbot Robot From LEGO Bricks

LEGO Chatbot RobotHave you ever pondered a better way to get people to make donations to a good cause? How about constructing a talking, dancing robot out of LEGO bricks that engages people in conversation and asks for monetary contributions? I bet you didn’t think of that!

Well, some folks in New Zealand did, as reported in a story by Radio New Zealand News. Shogo Nishiguchi, a Masters student from Osaka University, worked with New Zealand researchers from the University of Canterbury to build just such a LEGO robot as part of an Imagination Station project. The LEGO fireman moves, dances, and does its best to hold a conversation. It also uses light-hearted humor to ask for donations to keep the Imagination Station center running.

The article includes a link to a brief but informative video that provides details about the actual construction of the talking fireman LEGO-bot. The team used the Unity Game Engine for programming the robot’s animation. The fireman includes several actuators, a camera, and a speaker so that it can talk to visitors. Arduino is used to control the robot’s movements.

The team also makes use of a chatbot conversational database that it refers to simply as “Chatbot.” I’m not sure what the exact source of this database is, but it appears to be similar to (albeit more limited than) the A.L.I.C.E. conversational database constructed by Dr. Richard Wallace of Pandorabots. The chatbot database used for the fireman is from the perspective of an extraterrestrial, so it doesn’t work all that well for a firefighter. But it’s probably better than having a robot that can’t engage in even a simple level of chit chat.

The team also used a dialog scripting engine to create the custom dialog for talking about Imagination Station and asking for donations. The humor comes in when the firefighter robot kids potential donors that he only accepts large denomination bills, as in:

‘Oh, I’m sorry – I only accept $50 or $100 notes. No, just kidding, you can put in whatever you want.’

The question on everyone’s mind now is: Will we be seeing talking Santa robots ringing the bell by the donation bucket in front of our favorite retailers this coming Christmas? Maybe the technology isn’t quite ready for primetime yet, but I have the feeling it won’t be long.

EmoSpark AI Cube Launches Quietly in the UK

Remember EmoSPARK? The artificially and emotionally intelligent cube burst onto the scene last February with a successful Indigogo campaign, raising enough cash through pre-orders to push forward with development. With very little fanfare, EmoSPARK’s PR firm announced that it would be launching the product today at a low key press event in the UK.  By the looks of a few photos on Twitter, the event was small.

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 7.26.00 PMThe company is positioning EmoSPARK as “the first AI console to detect and respond to human emotions. You can pair the EmoSPARK cube with multiple other devices, including a smartphone app, a specially designed EmoSPARK camera, and a TV. The cube also connects to your home WiFi.

This video demos the process of pairing EmoSPARK with the smartphone app. In an update on Indiegogo posted last month, the Indiegogo team explained the personalization features built into the product. During the initial set up, or “bonding sequence,” the AI console asks the user to share personal details which are stored in the Cube’s “memory cortex.” The AI promises not to look at this information without first getting the user’s permission, not to share the data without permission, and to always have the user’s best interests in mind.

Based on an earlier brief demo of the EmoSPARK AI functions, it strikes me that the device has very similar capabilities to Amazon’s Echo. The user can ask it to retrieve recipes, play music by a specific artist, and answer questions. In the case of the EmoSPARK, though, the pairing to the TV allows the AI to display videos or other images to accompany its responses.

The goals of the EmoSPARK are certainly more ambitious than those of the Amazon Echo. With its camera and AI software, it is designed to recognize faces and facial expressions and intuit emotion. In this respect, the EmoSPARK’s intended features more closely mimic those of Jibo, the social robot that’s still under development.

How will the EmoSPARK fare upon its launch? It will be interesting to hear feedback from the early adopters. My first impression of the device and its broader ecosystem, based solely on limited videos, is that it has tons of potential. On the downside, it may be a little too chatty and it looks somewhat weird. The large eyeball with its continuously dilating pupil is somewhat unnerving (and reminiscent of HAL 9000), but I suppose you could get used to it. It may be a bit more loquacious than desired, but that’s the sort of thing that can be easily refined over time.

The EmoSPARK may come across as somewhat clumsy for now, but remember how unimpressive the video game Pong was when it came out (for those born early enough to remember back that far). Look at video games now. We’ve come a long way! These are baby steps. But EmoSPARK and all the other recently released voice-enabled intelligent assistant devices prove that the future of personal AI is just around the corner.

Conversational Toys – The Latest Trend in Speech Technology

Conversational toys seem to be all the rage. Two new entrants to the market are Mattel’s Hello Barbie and Elemental Path’s new CogniToy dinosaur. Before delving into the specifics of each toy, here’s a list of the primary features that both toys seem to share:

  • Speech recognition and natural language processing capability
  • Connection to the cloud
  • Ability to store basic information from previous conversations
  • Ability to offer personalized responses
  • Software that can evolve over time (get updates from the cloud server)
  • Activation of the toy’s listening mode by pressing a button

Barbie Chatbot Doll Powered by ToyTalk

Hello BarbieMattel is partnering with ToyTalk for the Hello Barbie doll. ToyTalk produces several popular mobile apps for children. ToyTalk also has speech recognition technology that’s specifically tuned to understand the higher register and more erratic speech patterns of children’s voices.

A Mattel spokesperson provided a brief demo of Hello Barbie at the recent Toy Fair 2015 in New York. Hello Barbie’s current conversational abilities are comparable to those of a chatbot that’s connected to Wikipedia or some other data source.

The talking Barbie can also store information about its conversational partners in the cloud, so that it can call on its memory to create more personalized responses. In the demo example, Hello Barbie remembers that its interlocutor enjoys being onstage. When the question of possible future jobs comes up, Hello Barbie uses this stored information to suggest a career such as dancer or politician, presumably since both jobs involve lots of time onstage.

According to the spokesperson, Barbie will have the ability to play simple conversational games, tell jokes and stories, and learn more about the person its talking to. The company hopes that offering this type of dynamic interaction with the doll will deepen the child’s relationship with it.

CogniToys by Elemental Path on Kickstarter

CogniToyElemental Path is currently blowing the roof off  the Kickstarter campaign to fund their CogniToys talking toy project. The last time I looked, they had raised over three times more than the $50K they were asking for, and there were still 23 days left in the campaign.

Elemental Path seems to have evolved from Majestyk Apps, which was one of the winners of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge.

Elemental Path is marketing their first production talking toy as both educational as well as entertaining. On their Kickstarter video, the cute dinosaur creature quizzes kids on simple math and counting exercises, answers science trivia questions, and tells knock knock jokes.

From the demo, it’s not completely clear how the CogniToy leverages the IBM Watson technology. Based on the Elemental Path website, the toy’s technology contains a dialogue engine that uses advanced language processing algorithms.

Concerns About Conversational Toys?

In an opinion piece for, Mike Elgan writes about the potentially darker side of both Hello Barbie and CogniToys. Elgan’s main concern about the Barbie toy is that it pulls young children into a world of total surveillance. Everything children say to their Barbie is captured and sent to the cloud to be analyzed and stored on ToyTalk’s server. According to Elgan, ToyTalk will also email conversations to the parent.

In the case of CogniToys, Elgan expresses concern that the question-answering dinosaur teaches children that knowledge is stored in the cloud and served up by Artificial Intelligence. In the future, Elgan fears that children may not have to learn or experience on their own. Instead, they’ll just ask their intelligent assistant for the answer.

What’s the Market for Conversational Toys?

If the success of Elemental Path’s Kickstarter campaign is any indication, there might be a sizeable market for conversational toys. The fact that Mattel feels motivated to partner with ToyTalk is another sign that we need to take the trend seriously.

Will children be better off with conversational toys than without them? Only time will tell. It seems to me that there can be many positive outcomes to interactions with toys like Hello Barbie and CogniToys. It depends in large part on what producers “program” the toys to do, how interactive we can make them, and whether they will spark a child’s creativity and critical thinking capacity as opposed to stifling them.