Do Humans Dream of Robotic Pets?

As machines and robots get smarter and improve how they interact with humans, the possibility of robotic pets becomes closer to reality. “We are a long way away from robotic pets as sophisticated as cats or dogs,” says Dr. Bradley Knox, founder and CEO of bots_alive. “Creating something more like a tarantula or a fish is a lot closer.”

Dr. Knox worked on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human-robot interaction at the MIT Media Lab. His company launched a Kickstarter to bring machine learning, computer vision, and augmented reality together to turn off-the-shelf HexBug Spider robot toys into simple robot pets. The Kickstarter achieved its goal in under two days. If they reach their $50k stretch goal, they will include a sumo wrestling feature in their initial release, so two bots can battle it out.

Dr. Knox decided to focus initially on AI and human interaction, which is why the Kickstarter is an add-on kit to an existing toy. He would eventually like to develop his own robotic products. “Our long-term goal is to make simple zoomorphic robots that people regard as pets,” says Dr. Knox. “The Spider allows us to incrementally put out a first product without manufacturing a complicated robot.”

Next, let’s see what you can expect if you back the Kickstarter.

What Do You Get?

I received a prototype of the bots_alive kit for review ahead of the planned Kickstarter release. The Kickstarter will include four 3D printed obstacles and one target. The stickers were attached on the kit I received, and I only had to apply the appropriate sticker to the HexBug Spider itself. There’s a separate sticker for a second bot. The kit also includes an infrared (IR) blaster module, which plugs into the audio jack of your smartphone or tablet, a 90-degree audio jack adapter, and a USB charging cable for the IR blaster. A short printed instruction sheet directs you to a setup page on the botsalive.com web site. The setup page includes a helpful video, and instructions on how to retrieve and install the app.

Robotic pets: This is what I got inside my bots_alive kit.

This is what I got inside my bots_alive kit. Photo: Andrew Terranova

The app currently runs only on iOS devices, but the Kickstarter release will include Android as well. Backers will receive an activation email, which will allow them to download the app. There is a two-part setup for the app. The ‘TestFlight’ app supports iOS 8.0 or later. After you activate your invitation through Testflight, you download and install the bots_alive app itself. I installed the app on an iPad Mini. Dr. Knox explained to me that the app is initially tested on the iPhone, so testing on the iPad lags just a bit. There were a few quirks getting it working on my iPad Mini, but Dr. Knox was able to assist me over the phone. These quirks should be worked out before delivery.

Barring the few snags I hit with the app, setup was simplicity itself. The app walks you through the whole process. The stock HexBug remote is helpful for verifying the robot is working if you do need to do any troubleshooting.

So once it is all ready, let’s look at what you can you do with it.

What Can it Do?

The app uses the smartphone or tablet built-in camera to provide overhead computer vision. The IR blaster plugs into the smartphone or tablet audio jack, and sends commands to the robot, replacing its usual IR remote. A special label marks the bot, as well as obstacles and a target, so the app can recognize them. The app will support recent Apple iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.

Robotic pets: The bots_alive robot is attracted to the blue target, and blocked by the red obstacles.

The blue target attracts the bots_alive robot, while the red obstacles block it. Photo: Andrew Terranova

Watching the bot was fun. The bot itself seems very simple, but it is fairly complex in terms of what you can do with it by manipulating the obstacles and target objects.

The robot interacts with the labeled objects in a way that mimics a living creature. Rather than head straight towards its target, for example, the robot sometimes shows hesitation and a degree of randomness that you don’t get from a simple robot. Placing the obstacles in the robot’s way produces more random behaviors. The bot usually avoids the obstacles, but sometimes it tries to push them out of its way, or touches them in a way that seems like curiosity.

Next we take a look at the bots_alive’s approach to robotic pets.

How Was it Developed?

The programming behind these behaviors is sophisticated. Researchers had a human secretly remotely operating a robot while it interacted with kids. They captured data on what behaviors got positive reactions from the children. The programming is driven by algorithms modeled on the successful interactions from the human operator. The robot’s behavior is based on machine learning and stochastic processes for randomness, rather than static hand coded responses.

“That’s how we are making the characters in development,” Dr Knox said of the technique, but that won’t be available to end-users. He wants people to interact with the bots through physical objects and natural behavior. “You can’t program your dog, and we don’t want users to program their bots_alive robot,” Dr. Knox says.

Thinking about the robot as a character is a good analogy. When a video game includes good character development, you feel empathy for the characters and become more immersed in the game. Unlike a video game, the focus with bots_alive is physical.

Robotic pets play: It wants the target on top of a precarious tower of obstacles.

The bots_alive robotic pet eyes a target on top of a precarious tower of obstacles. Photo: Andrew Terranova

In play tests of the current Kickstarter project, kids treated the smartphone screen as a reference point, rather than as their focus. They experimented and interacted with the robot in unexpected ways. In a couple of cases, the kids began stacking the red obstacle blocks, and placed the blue target block on top, forming a very precarious tower. Since the bot has a bird’s eye view of the blocks, it only saw the target and knocked over the tower to get to the blue block, much to the kids’ joy.

While the Kickstarter is cool, it is only the beginning of longer term plan.

What’s the Future Hold?

The core vision of company is to move towards making simple and companionable robot pets. Bots_alive is hoping to license their technology to one or more toy companies. Imagine programming your robot through the physical world, like training it with rewards or punishments. This is an example of the direction bots_alive may be taking. They even have a National Science Foundation grant for this purpose.

Although the initial product isn’t programmable, bots_alive is considering an API for developers. There’s potential for STEM educational uses as well. Bots_alive may develop a Scratch-like programming interface so kids can write their own code for the robot.

In the long term Dr. Knox sees bot_alive’s products being used as engaging toys and companions. Imagine a future where robotic pets are just present as part of your world, always on and able to recharge themselves. You can think about it as a simple pet you have a relationship with, like a gerbil, but also like fish in a tank that you just enjoy watching.

Pets have been shown to have many psychological benefits, but not everyone can have one. For example, apartment renters are often not allowed animals. Military personnel stationed far from home and senior citizens in nursing homes can feel isolated. So in the future, there are many people who might enjoy interacting with robot pets.

Will the future bring us true robotic pets? Bots_alive may be an early step in the evolution of their AI.

Will the future bring us true robotic pets? Perhaps bots_alive is an early step in the evolution of their AI. Photo: Andrew Terranova