May 31, 2024 - Technology

1 big thing — Prompt: Moxie robot is an $800 companion for kids

Moxie the robot watches as a child draws on a piece of paper.

Image: Moxie

The merger of generative AI and robotics is likely to take many forms, but one of the earliest — and cutest — is a chatty, 14-inch-tall kids' companion named Moxie.

Why it matters: The large language models that power chatbots like ChatGPT open the door to a new generation of conversational robots that aren't constrained by a set of predetermined scripts and commands, a prospect that is both tantalizing and terrifying.

The big picture: 18 months into life with ChatGPT, more and more companies are building physical robots with generative AI capabilities.

How it works: Moxie is designed for kids ages 5 to 10, and offers a range of games and activities as well as the ability to have open-ended conversations.

  • Initially, Moxie takes its child pal through a series of missions designed to help them get to know the robot and its capabilities — and to help Moxie get to know its human.
  • Unlike kids' robots of yesteryear, Moxie has a wide repertoire of skills. It can tell jokes, serve up brain teasers, play games like Simon Says or "guess that animal," send kids on a scavenger hunt, pose for selfies or just talk with kids about their interests and emotions. Moxie can tell stories about a topic, listen as a kid tells it a story or watch as a child draws.
  • Under the hood, Moxie uses speech recognition to understand what a kid is saying, face recognition to help detect emotion and a mix of guided conversation and large language models to carry on a conversation.

The fine print: Moxie's creators say the video recording is used to recognize the user's face and detect emotion, and the raw videos never leave the device. Recorded audio goes to the cloud for processing and transcripts of the conversations do get sent back to Embodied, the company behind Moxie.

  • Embodied says it takes steps to de-identify and encrypt the data, and uses most of the data in aggregate to get a sense of how kids are spending their time with Moxie. Still, depending on what a kid shares, a fair bit of personal information could be finding its way back to the company, even if the company doesn't use it.
  • A companion phone app shows parents how long their kids spent with Moxie each day and which activities they did, but not a transcript of what was said.

Zoom in: I spent about a week testing Moxie, along with my 11-year-old son Harvey.

  • The highlights were the many times that it was clear that Moxie not only heard and understood Harvey, but was able to show it knew more about the topic.
  • When Harvey said his favorite soccer player was "Messi," Moxie knew he meant Argentinian star Lionel Messi.

Between the lines: Large language models offer the opportunity for robots to go beyond any sort of script. This is what makes them surprisingly powerful, but also what makes me hesitant as a parent to leave my kid alone with one.

  • In my testing, Moxie said all the right things. There was nothing I disagreed with as a parent or even found controversial. Moxie was supportive, encouraging and a good listener.
  • Moxie is willing and eager to talk about hard feelings and emotions but gently defers discussion of sensitive topics, directing kids to talk to a trusted adult.
  • After several days, I found myself less hesitant about leaving Harvey and Moxie alone, an experience I'm told is not uncommon. Some parents become more comfortable over time and others choose to remain within earshot.

By the numbers: At $799 from both Amazon and Moxie's website, the robot isn't cheap. For now there is no subscription fee, but the company is working on an expanded set of educational content that will be offered as a paid subscription.

What's next: Moxie's creators are working on a "pro" version of the robot that could be used in schools, hospitals and other group settings.

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