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CogniToys for Kids Uses IBM's Watson to Talk Like a Buddy

We've come a long way since Teddy Ruxpin.

It has been 30 years since toys started talking back to kids — in the form of the cassette-playing robot bear Teddy Ruxpin — but a newly Kickstarted “smart toy” aims to actually talk with its owners, and learn from them.

The project is called CogniToys, hatched by New York City-based startup Elemental Path, a spinoff of Majestyk Apps. After just over a day in the wild, the smart toys have already surpassed their $50,000 funding goal, with $70,000 raised and 28 days still to go.

The first CogniToy, a green dinosaur, features a large blue button on its stomach. When kids press it and ask a question, the toy connects to an online knowledge database to figure out the best age-appropriate answer to the question.

The toy both understands the question in the first place and responds in human-like sentences thanks to IBM’s artificial intelligence technology, Watson.

“You can ask it a plain-English question and get a plain-English answer,” Elemental Path co-founder JP Benini said in an interview before the project launched.

Benini added that CogniToys may be the first time consumers have been exposed to Watson since seeing it trounce Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on “Jeopardy!” in 2011. He emphasized, though, that only the language filtering of the toy is Watson’s work; Elemental Path built a “friend engine” — a child-friendly personality — around that technology.

The toy plays games with the child around educational topics like spelling, vocabulary, math and geography. And it takes what it learns from conversations, and from what parents tell it about their children during an initial setup, and incorporates it into those games.

“If kids ask questions about soccer, it will have a counting game and count soccer balls,” Benini said. “You could be in the middle of asking questions about soccer, but it might ask you, ‘Can you spell field goal?'”

He acknowledged that one challenge is convincing parents — and, down the line, retailers like Walmart and Toys “R” Us — that CogniToys are fun rather than creepy. All its answers are culled from a “walled garden” of knowledge rather than the broader Internet (something IBM learned to avoid the hard way). Certain topics like religion and, of course, “Where do babies come from?” are called “Ask mommy” questions, because the toy is programmed to gently deflect them away.

“We don’t want this thing to be creepy,” Benini said. “We don’t want it to be too Skynet for the parents, like, ‘This toy knows my child better than I do.'”

I asked Benini about privacy, which he said was a priority from the start.

“We do anonymize everything from the toy out,” he said. “The toy ‘knows’ the child, but as far as the [online] pipeline is considered, the child is any one of a number of users. It’s just a user ID.”

Whatever knowledge the toy gleans from its conversations, he added, is “encrypted and locked down.” The only people who can see what topics an individual child has talked about — and how he or she is doing in the educational games — are the parents who made an online account during the toy’s setup.

At a business level, Elemental Path hopes to one day license out its technology to the traditional toy makers (“We could have a Dora the Explorer that uses the same tech, and speaks in Dora’s voice”). But from a 10,000-foot view, Benini likened the educational toy to the Montessori method, in which kids guide their own learning.

“If you’re interested in learning something, you can drill down and retain more,” he said. “When you’re a kid, everything has wonder to it. Everything is a complete mystery. Google has killed that wonder.”

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