It was the year 2016. Paolo Pirjanian cofounded the company ‘Embodied‘ with fellow roboticist Maja Matarić to reinvent a better social robot. In between, Matarić left Embodied in 2018 to give time to her research. Recently this week, the company started taking in preorders for ‘Moxie‘.

Moxie is the first automaton or social robot that will start shipping from autumn 2020. Where other counterpart robots like Jibo and Paro are explicitly designed for adults or the elderly, Moxie is aimed at fostering and developing social, cognitive, and emotional development in children. The robots would be extra help to the families to develop these qualities in their children. “There’s something innate in human minds that triggers when we see something automatically move on its own,” stated Pirjanian.

We see that robots are kind of a living thing with a life and consciousness. Though we know these are machines; we can’t help seeing the agency. The attachment that human form with these automatons is more remarkable than it seems, more so because these machines weren’t designed to forge social connections’.

Moxie has a teardrop-shaped head and is fitted atop a cylindrical, baby blue body. It is a cross something between a videogame, pet, and a teacher. The primary purpose of Moxie is to help children develop and improve the necessary social skills and cognitive skills.

Moxie the Robot helps in improving Childs' Social skills

Robots are crafted for all kinds of skill-building activities that would otherwise quickly wear down a human. Though social robots can’t replace human interaction, they may be useful in augmenting it. “There’s solid evidence to support that the social robots can help develop skills in children,” stated Kate Darling, a research specialist at MIT Media Lab. “I would call this thing preliminary evidence, though it is very promising.” According to several pieces of research, companion robots are useful primarily to augment children with neurological disorders like Autism. Pirjanian stated that though Moxie was initially developed for kids for this spectrum, during testing, parents were also eager to use it for developing skills in all children.

However, designing and creating useful companion robots is a significant challenge. According to Erik Stolterman Bergqvist, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Indiana Bloomington, the reason is that “social robots don’t possess an obvious function.” They are specifically designed to be the child’s friend, but companionship is a rigid metric that defies easy quantification. This makes Moxie apart from other robots!

To meet this ‘interactive’ challenge, Pirjanian and his colleagues resorted to artificial intelligence. Moxie’s head has microphones and cameras that impart data to the machine-learning algorithms so that the robot can successfully make a natural conversation, identify users, and also look them in the eye. Except for Google’s automated speech-recognition software, every other data is crunched by the processor inside Moxie.

Also, every week, Moxie is updated with fresh content based on a particular theme like “being kind” or “making mistakes.” Moxie assigns the child on thematic missions and asks them to report back about their experiences. Pirjanian considers Moxie a “springboard” that improves social interactions regularly.

According to its creator, Moxie’s extensive appetite for data is the key to its effectiveness and workability. The information is a critical tool for providing feedback to parents and also helps Moxie to craft its interaction with individual kids. When Moxie “sleeps,” it crunches the data collected, measuring metrics like the child’s reading comprehension and language use, and the time spent on different tasks. It then forwards the data report to an app that the parents can use to monitor their child’s progress daily. Moxie also offers recommendations with time.

In terms of parent’s fear over their child’s privacy and spending too much of time with Moxie, Pirjanian stated that Embodied focused hard on privacy and data security in the robot. The parents should give their full consent to their child using Moxie, and the majority of data collected is processed locally on a computer fitted inside Moxie. “There is no way images go out of Moxie,” stated Pirjanian. It is only the audio data that is transferred over the internet and transcribed using a speech-to-text algorithm.

Moxie’s teardrop head is tilted at the front with an attractive round screen that has two large cartoon eyes and a mouth. With the help of machine vision, Moxie can make direct eye contact with the child. Though Moxie can’t mobilise and move on its own, it can effectively tilt its head and bow at the middle. Moxie also has two flipper-like arms that the robot uses to accentuate its speech. Unlike Roomba and other robots, everything about Moxie from its colour, shape and algorithms are designed and crafted to foster connections with the children.