clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why cute robots are important for the entire tech industry

Anki CEO Boris Sofman talks about making a robot that can compete with pets on the latest Recode Decode.


If robots are here to stay, they’re going to have to get smarter. Anki CEO Boris Sofman says that’s not going to happen overnight; we should instead be figuring out how to help them learn gradually.

Sofman describes his company as a “proving ground” for artificial intelligence and robotics in the home. Its latest product, Cozmo, is an emotive palm-sized robot that the company hopes will advance enough over the next few years to be “in contention with a pet.”

“The closer it comes to a machine, you’re unforgiving and you want it to be perfect,” Sofman said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “In a lot of ways, what Cozmo is is the beginnings of an interface with characters.”

Anki employs alumni of places like Pixar and Dreamworks to make the $179 “toddler of a robot” more personable. And they’ve loaded Cozmo up with little quirks that the company thinks will make a big difference.

“If he loses a game, he gets grumpy and sulks in the corner,” Sofman said. “If you pick him up and put him on his head, he gets frustrated and flips over. If he sees the edge of a table, he gets scared. These are just examples, but if you tie these in in the right way, it feels like he’s alive.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify (mobile only), TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

Sofman contrasted Cozmo with a precise but unlikable machine that can perform mechanical tasks like unloading dishes.

“You have these huge arms that unload dishwashers and do all these really complicated tasks,” he said. “But they’re big, they’re menacing, they look like they need to be perfect. You can have something that does the most complicated task 48 out of 50 times, and you remember the two times that it failed, because you think it should be perfect.”

An entertainment-minded robot may seem more trivial on the surface, but Sofman argued that the success of Cozmo’s integration into the home could have big ripples throughout the tech industry. He likened robotics to the early internet, calling it a “new technology where every industry has to rethink how they operate,” or else get left behind.

Getting consumers to buy and interact with robots means Anki and others will get better at designing them to do things like move around the house and recognize objects.

“Imagine the functionality in the home many years down the road,” Sofman said. “You have all fixed technologies, your thermostat and all these other things; you have your voice interfaces, which are important, but right now you’re talking to the static boxes.”

“At some point, [functional robots] can acquire mobility around the house, and even further, interface with objects around the house,” he added. “Being able to manipulate things, being able to pick things up, being able to start functionally doing things that would require motion and interaction with the environment.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.