Is Anki the Hottest Robotics Company You've Never Heard Of?

Watching the live stream of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday, I nearly fell off my chair when Apple CEO Tim Cook called on stage a company that, he said, is using the iOS platform "to bring artificial intelligence and robotics into our daily lives." What?! Did I just hear the word robotics come out of Tim Cook's mouth? And what company could this be?

The company is called Anki. It's based in San Francisco, was founded by three Carnegie Mellon roboticists, and has raised an eye-popping $50 million from investors. It had been in stealth mode for years, but now, at Apple's keynote event, no less, it was ready to unveil its first product: Anki Drive is a racing game featuring toy-size robotic cars controlled by an iPhone app. In a live demo, Anki co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman [pictured below] described it as a "video game in the real world," and said the company wants to get artificial intelligence and robotics "out of the lab" and into consumers' hands. The presentation drew lots of cheers from the WWDC crowd, but for those of us who follow robotics, it left our heads spinning. Is Anki just using AI and robotics as buzzwords to hype a new toy? Or is this the hottest robotics startup we've never heard of?

Robotics startup Anki unveils Anki Drive at WWDC

I suspect Anki (pronounced AHN-key) is on to something big here, and will try to explain why. First, you should watch the demo, below. There isn't a lot of explaining in terms of how it all works or technical details, and the demo moves pretty fast (except when a glitch forces them to restart the system, adding to the suspense). In fact, at first glance, the whole thing may look like a simple racing toy, a new take on the slot car sets that have been around for decades. Where's the cutting-edge robotics? Why do you need CMU PhDs to build this thing?

What you need to keep in mind is that there's an iPhone app (what Sofman calls the AI engine) orchestrating the behaviors of the cars and creating different gameplay scenarios. Also note that in the demo the cars were set to drive autonomously, but when Anki Drive becomes available later this year (retailing for around $200 at Apple Stores), players will use their iPhones to actually drive the cars, racing against each other or taking on the AI. And that's when the fun begins, Sofman says.

Again, software is what makes Anki Drive possible. Sofman explains that the cars are sensing their positions on the track and continually exchanging data via Bluetooth low energy with the iPhone. The app computes possible actions and decides what each car should do based on its objective [the image below shows a representation of that]. And because it's the app that defines how each car behaves, the cars can have different "personalities" and get customized features like different "weapon systems." As Sofman told the Atlantic, "We have a virtual state in the phone that matches the physical world. If we want this one character to be more aggressive or intelligent, physically nothing changes in [the car]. It's the software."

He said the cars, which can reach 1.5 meters per second, use cheap components, including two motors, a battery, microcontroller, and camera. It's not clear how the camera, which apparently faces downward, determines the car's position, but Sofman explains that the cars are "sensing down on the track, and there is information embedded that gives them knowledge about where they are." About the role of the AI engine, Sofman says

"You've seen line following robots? Robots that follow a line to go wherever they want. It's doing the same thing except there is no line—there's a virtualized line where we have sophisticated software that creates any maneuver we want and turns it into a virtual line that the car can follow as if it was physical line. There's a lot of logic on the car. Five hundred times a second, it oscillates the motors to do sophisticated control algorithms. If we drive too fast, the car will drift and then recover and go back to following the line.

Inside the phone, we're doing a really deep search, like a chess game, thinking about what the car is going to do, and what the other cars are going to do forward into the future so that we can analyze thousands of these potential actions and come up with a plan that is more sophisticated than anything you'd come up with if you did an instantaneous gut reaction. In fact, [what we do] is a more rigorous way to think about AI than almost any videogame does. I was the one who worked on the early AI on this and I spent a lot of time talking to friends in the videogame industry and asking how people did AI in videogames and racing games."

It's this notion of intelligent software acting as the "brains" of a complex system, controlling physical robots with limited knowledge or capabilities, that makes Anki interesting, in my view. (Other startups combining smartphone apps and physical robots include Sphero and Romotive.) In a video, Anki co-founder Hanns Tappeiner describes the key idea behind the company: "The idea was that you have potentially multiple robots available to do something together. Each single unit doesn't need to be as smart but the system as a whole, when you look at it, is something very intelligent." This is nothing new in robotics. Kiva System's warehouse robots, the soccer-playing bots of Robocup, and other robot systems, rely on similar principles. But Anki is designing a system that average consumers (and not the military or large corporations) can afford, and that's what makes their effort remarkable—and hugely profitable if they succeed.

"The way robotics and AI come into the market is the way computers come into the market, very expensive,” Marc Andreessen, who is an investor in Anki, told Tech Crunch. “These guys are doing the exact opposite, at the lowest cost possible. They’re going for quantity, they’re going for scale. Sort of like the smartphone versus the mainframe." The three Anki founders, who met at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and have experience in both academia and industry, seem to have a good plan in terms of where they want to go as a company. And investors (which include Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, and Two Sigma) seem to think they can deliver.

Sofman, the CEO, has repeatedly said that Anki is an "artificial intelligence and robotics company." He emphasized that Anki Drive "is only the beginning," and that other creations should follow. "The goal is to use the company Anki as a vehicle to do more and more sophisticated projects in robotics," he said in a company video. What projects? He won't say. So for now we have to wait. When Anki Drive launches, we'll be able to  see for ourselves if there's really some solid AI and robotics in it, and if the little robot cars will prove fun (for more than 5 minutes) and addictive enough to make them a big hit. What do you think: Is Anki hot or hype?

[ Anki ]

Images: Anki (top, bottom); Apple (center)

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