After the success of Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner of the last decade, Paolo Pirjanian -former CTO of iRobot the manufacturer of Roomba, joined forces with Maja Matarić, USC robotics professors to create a successful social robot. The keyword here is “successful”. We have seen quite a number of social robots hitting the market in the last 5 years but none was able to turn into a success. They looked nice at first glance, surely a tech marvel, but after a few interactions they lost their glamour.
Moxie, this is the name of their robot, targets children and wants to become their daily companion. By watching the clip you will surely appreciate the fluidity of the interaction, a natural language exchange that sounds really natural. The “content” of the exchange is also interesting (at least the one you can hear in the clip) aiming at establishing empathy between the robot and the child as well as to involve other “human beings” into the conversation. It has not been designed to be the companion but to be another -non exclusive- friend for the child.
From a technology point of view I have no doubt it is a marvel. From a market standpoint it is interesting to see if it will succeed. It will not be -just- about the interest in its features, it is about -mostly for me- its business model. quite innovative I would say:
- you don’t buy Moxie, you pay for its services
- the subscription, at time I am writing this, is 60$ (actually it is only 59.99) per month if you pay in advance for a full year
- if you reserve it now for 50$ you will get it for free for the first year
Now, what impresses me is their confidence that people (parents) will find Moxie worth the monthly fee on a continuous bases. They include in their subscription unlimited use of Moxie, its continuous update with new content and full use of the cloud plus a smartphone app parents can use to monitor the children learning progress. I guess that the robot (its AI software, partly running in the cloud) will create a mirror image of the kid and will be able to finely tune the interaction so that it will never repeat itself but rather grow as the child grows. A very interesting concept, a sort of embodiment of the child Digital Twin in shape of a robot (I guess it is not by accident the Moxie company was called Embodied).
For sure I will track them looking at the market response. If successful it may open up a whole new game.
I am no expert in children education so I discussed this with a few people and with Cristina, my daughter, who is a professional educator focussing on ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) children. Here’s what she said:
I feel that playing with the toys of the past, like miniature cars, is more effective than playing with a tablet. The kid gains a more open relation with the world and there is a well defined separation between the kid’s self and the outer world that may be missing in the interaction with a tablet where the outside world disappears. Kids playing through a “screen” are shielded from the outside reality, tend to change frequently the inner world by jumping from one app to the next without really engaging to anyone of them -it is the web surfing paradigm once more. Once they have to confront themselves with the “real world” they often show a lack of focus and concentration, basically they tend to “surf” in the real world as they do in the cyberspace. They feel the urge to change and keep on changing (Attention Disorders). To have a balanced education a child has to learn to play in the real world AND to leverage from the interaction in the cyberspace. Missing the real world may be detrimental to the development of imagination capability, a bit like exclusively using a calculator will not develop your brain mathematical prowess (if done as a kid!). It is important for a child not to spend most of her time in front of a screen, be it a television or a tablet. Using them as a complement, on the other hand, may surely boost her capabilities and become and advantage. Looking at the clip I can see Moxie stimulating the kid to engage with other kids. Personally, however, I feel that this should remain the duty of her parents. A robot, even a nice one like Moxie, should not become a proxy for the parents.