Often in the run-up to Christmas, there’s a toy that’s so wildly, implausibly hyped – Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, Buzz Lightyear – that rational people will throw rival parents into traffic to get their hands on one. This year, that toy should have been Anki’s Cozmo, but somehow this awesome little robot has – probably by virtue of costing almost £200 – gone largely under the radar.
At first glance, Cozmo looks... a bit crap. It’s a tiny, plasticky little thing. Put it in a line-up with a bunch of corner-shop tat and you’d struggle to pick it out as the item that costs £200 as opposed to £2. But power it up and you start to see where the money goes. As it wakes, digital eyes blink to life and it looks up at you adoringly, tilting its domed face towards yours, as if preparing to suckle at your wetted teat.
Pixar’s Wall-E is a clear inspiration, with both machines trundling along on caterpillar tracks and “speaking” in an endearingly childlike digital voice. One of the first things you’re prompted to do – using the ubiquitous companion app – is use its facial recognition software to teach it who you are, after which it will address you, and a bunch of other people, by name.
Set it on the ground in “explore” mode and it will pootle around, avoiding walls and crevices thanks to an array of clever sensors, occasionally hoisting its digger arms into the air and singing little songs in sheer joy at being granted a shallow imitation of life.
It comes with three flashing “Power Cubes”, the design of which are lifted wholesale from the video game Portal, and Cozmo will locate them, stack them up and knock them down again depending on its mood. It’s also able to play games using the cubes. Line them up and it will take part in a series of memory- and reflex-based challenges. If it wins, it will taunt you with unbearable songs, and you can respond by shutting it down, because, for now, we’re still in charge.
Alternatively, you can take control using your phone and joy ride it around, viewing the huge and frightening world through its monochrome face-camera.
There’s also an element of Tamagotchi-style baby-sitting involved. It will fall into a funk if you ignore it for too long, and it requires occasional “feeding”. Finally, there’s a rudimentary Coding Lab, which allows you to chain together various actions using MIT’s child-friendly drag-and-drop programming language, Scratch. This is probably enough to justify buying one for your child as an educational tool, when really you just want to play with a robot that will pretend to love you after everyone else has gone to bed.
And remember: when we’re living in a post apocalyptic wasteland governed by pitiless machine overlords, you’re going to need all the robot friends you can get.