Four years ago, IBM’s Watson utterly trounced a pair of very clever humans in a special tournament of Jeopardy! And by utterly trounced, we mean that Watson ended up with $77,147, while the nearest human only managed $24,000. Suck it, meatbags.
Since then, Watson has kept itself busy, most recently managing clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic. IBM has been desperately trying to get companies to integrate Watson into their apps, and last year, it held a contest for Watson app developers. One of the winners leveraged Watson to make smarter toys for fun, interactive learning, and you can now get a piece of this Watson-driven tech on Kickstarter.
As a toy, this little dinosaur doesn't do much, physically. All it's got to go on is its interactive intelligence, which could be very, very powerful. It could also be very, very frustrating, as anyone who’s spent much time talking with Siri can likely attest to. Is Watson’s cloud-based brain ready for real-time interaction with kids who have attention spans that are probably shorter than the average latency of your Internet connection? The Kickstarter video makes the CogniToy dino seem quite snappy, but there isn’t a lot of information on what’s actually going on under its green skin.
Assuming the dino works as advertised, there’s a huge amount of potential here. Through the dino, Watson’s algorithms can get to know each child that it interacts with, tailoring those interactions to the child’s age and interests. Behind the scenes, CogniToys developers can figure out what kinds of interactions work best, and continually optimize the toy’s conversation, while adding new features over time. This can be applied on a per-child basis or much more generally. For example, if a child asks lots of science questions, the CogniToy could talk about science more often. Or conversely, the CogniToy could try and introduce kids to science if it notices that they don’t ask about it at all. Or, perhaps the toy could pay attention to local and national news headlines, and find ways to keep kids informed about current events, answering questions in ways they can understand.
For parents, there's some sort of control panel that provides metrics on educational progress and allows content to be moderated. There isn’t any more detail on this, but it’s a very interesting idea: you might be able to get actual statistics on what your child is interested in, what they’re good at, and what they might need help with, on a level that might not otherwise be accessible to you.
CogniToys mentions on its website that the technology inside the dino is designed from the ground up to be applied to other toys. As a reluctant adult, I’m more interested in when this Watson-driven “friendgine” (CogniToys came up with that one, not me) might make an appearance on my cellphone, to lend a bit of adaptive intelligence to voice recognition software which has promised all kinds of things and delivers something else entirely. Is this something that CogniToys can improve, starting with our children? As CogniToys co-founder JP Benini succintly puts it, “we're either really on to something, or we’re absolutely crazy.” We’re looking forward to finding out which one it is.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.