The Crafty Robot's Ross Atkin is bringing a new form of AI to the tech toy sector with his latest project, Smartibot. Ahead of ToyNews' deep dive into this fascinating world in the July issue, we catch up with Atkin to find out more about machine learning in toys.
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Why is now the right time to be bringing AI tech to the toy space?

We've seen a huge amount of activity focused on toys that get kids to code in the last few years. There has been everything from products to teach pre-schoolers algorithmic thinking, to initiatives like the BBC Micro:bit; a small programmable circuit board that was handed out to every 11 year old in the UK. Technology is moving really fast though, and we are realising that understanding how to work with A.I. is going to be just as important as coding when these kids enter the workplace.

Now is also an amazing time to start playing with A.I. in toys because of the incredible advances in the technology's actual capability in the last year or so. It is now possible for a quite powerful A.I. to run on a tiny chip in a smartphone, or inside a toy itself, at high speed. This allows, for the first time, the toy to understand what is happening around it quickly enough to be fun to play with.

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How have we seen tech find its rightful place within toys, what does Smartibot bring to this arena now?

Smartibot does two things that existing tech toys don't really manage.

The first is to provide a really open-ended, creative, building experience. We've tried really hard in designing it to take away all of the hassle from creating your own robot, whilst at the same time not limiting your creativity. You have to build the robot yourself so you understand how the different parts go together and, in fact we give you three sets of cardboard parts for different robots, so you can really build up your confidence. Then you can re-use the circuit board and motors and build a robot out of almost anything - we've had a lot of fun with potatoes and other vegetables, clay and even yarn. We give you two motors in the kit but you can connect up to 14 to so your robots can be as complicated as you want. We are giving you the tools to be a proper inventor.

The second thing is financial and technical accessibility. The other thing we worked hard on in the design was making the robot as fun and capable as we could whilst minimising the use of expensive parts and processes. We figured it made more sense to let people use a smartphone they already have, than make them pay lots of money so we could put exactly the same components inside the robot. This has allowed us to put a robot on the market that has the similar features to competitors that cost four, five or even six times the price. It's also allowed us to make it super easy to set up as everything happens in the app.

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If we develop the conversation around AI, what is the potential for this technology in the toy space? Why is this so exciting and what are the issues we need to be wary of?

A.I. is an incredibly exciting addition to the toy space because of both the sophistication of the interactions it can enable and the opportunities to teach kids about the technology itself. With Smartibot we are trying to do both of these things. I think that there is a risk, when people create toys that only do the former, that they serve to reinforce a sense of technology seeming magical and unfathomable. For example researchers at M.I.T. found that kids believe A.I. toys and devices are smarter than them.

This is the opposite of what technology toys are supposed to be doing. They should be helping kids really understand how technology works. This is important, obviously for those that will work with technology, but even those that don't will need to understand it if they are going to participate in democratic decisions about how it is used. By the time today's kids are adults they will be grappling with all kinds of questions about how A.I. is used in policing, healthcare, the military etc. We don't want them approaching these issues with the ignorance about the fundamentals of the technology that US Senators showed when they were questioning Mark Zuckerberg back in April.

What sort of growth is there in the AI toy market, how big can this become? How big is the space at the moment?

The size of the A.I. toy market at the moment is difficult to estimate because there is a bit of a grey area around what qualifies as an A.I. toy, plus a lot of the market leaders are startups that are still privately held so don't publish quarterly results. Those companies look to be growing fast and more and more products are coming onto the market and connecting with consumers so it looks like. it is growing fast.

A.I. can make almost any toy more fun to play with, and is reaching the point where it can run in chips that are very, very cheap. Because of this it's not unreasonable to imagine A.I. finding it's way into every battery operated toy; as the chips it would run inside already have. There is even scope for A.I. to affect non-battery operated toys, as this board game that works with Alexa shows.


What's the next step for Smartibot?

One of the benefits of using a smartphone to do all the computational heavy lifting is that we can add features to all the Smartibots just by updating the app. We are keen to add in some other A.I.s so that the robot can respond to things like voice commands, gestures and expressions. We also want to start taking advantage of some of the augmented reality features that are finding their way into smartphones to help the robot navigate its environment. We are also working on an educational curriculum so Smartibot can be used in schools. Finally we are working on some new kits, that will allow users to build more complicated robots straight out of the box.

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