Cosmo is the Artificially Intelligent Toy Robot You've Always Wanted (Review)

He has as much personality as WALL-E, and comes with his own blocks.

By Dave Johnson

When I was a kid, I fantasized about having a pet robot. These days, our kids can have exactly that.

Meet Cosmo. Take a good look at him; he’s not the sort of robot that I ever fantasized about, as my imagination ran more along the lines of humanoid robots, robot dogs, and robot dinosaurs. Cosmo, on the other hand, is a palm-sized forklift. But don’t let that fool you. He has more smarts than any robot dog you’re likely to encounter, and he has as much personality as WALL-E. And the fact that he’s a basically forklift means he has the ability to actually do some very cool things.

As a grownup, it’s easy to see that he’s a stunning achievement in artificial intelligence and robot design; as a kid, he’s a blast to play with. Scratch that. He’s a blast to play with if you’re an adult, too. I should know.

Living with Cosmo

The first thing you learn when you spend some time with Cosmo is that he oozes personality. His face is a computer display that renders big, expressive eyes, and they change in response to what he’s doing and what he’s… feeling.

He makes all sorts of squeaks and squawks. He gets excited when he glances in your direction and recognizes you (he can memorize every face in your family and respond to each one), his eyes large and his computer voice animated as he says your name aloud. It’s enough to melt your heart.

He gets equally animated when playing games. He can entertain himself, for example. Cosmo comes with three small blocks, and he likes to stack them, knock them over, and move them around. He gurgles excitedly when he plays with them, but it’s even cooler when you play with him. He gets sad and angry when he loses a game, for example. He’ll hang his head and grouse about it in his adorable computer voice, and sometimes he’ll even take out his frustration by knocking over blocks like a little kid.

And when he wins? He gloats. And dances around and chirps like it’s his birthday. It’s adorable.

Teaching Cosmo to Play

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. You should know that Cosmo works in concert with an app for iOS and Android. He doesn’t do anything wthout the phone; you need to fire up the app, which wakes him off his charging stand. From there, you mainly interact with Cosmo via the app; he has a number of skills he can learn, like the ability to pick up blocks, stack them, and roll them.

You do all of these things by choosing them from the app. You can also activate his ability to pounce on your fingers. That’s right—you can play a game with him in which he’ll try to slam his lift down on your fingers, like a cybernetic cat.

All of these skills cost you some “resources,” which you accrue by playing games with Cosmo and completing daily challenges. Each day, for example, you’re presented with a checklist of goals to accomplish, like playing certain games with Cosmo or beating him with various victory conditions. The more you do with Cosmo, the more resource points you collect, allowing you to unlock more abilities and trigger anytime you want (though he also does stuff on his own, without waiting for you).

Speaking of the games, Cosmo can play a variety of games with you. Keepaway challenges you to dangle cube in front of Cosmo and to yank it away before he can pounce on it, like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Quick Tap is sort of like a game of Simon.

A pattern of lights appear on two cubes, and it’s a race between you–with one cube–and Cosmo–with the other–to see who can tap their cube first when the patterns match. Quick Tap games range from extremely easy to fiendishly difficult, and Cosmo relishes every win with a fervor only a 7 year old who just beat his dad can typically muster.

Within a day or two of getting started with Cosmo, you can unlock Explorer Mode, which is a game in which you can actually take control of Cosmo, driving him around and seeing the world through his eyes on the phone’s display. My favorite part: When you go backwards, he says "beep beep beep." Mind you, he doesn't beep. He says beep, which is perhaps the most adorable thing I've ever heard.

Cosmo Feels Alive

Obviously, Cosmo is chock full of personality, and that’s thanks in part to the fact that Anki, the developer, collaborated with folks from Pixar. My comparison to WALL-E was deliberate; this guy feels like a Pixar character come to life. Notice, for example, the way he tries to fake you out when playing Keepaway, or his little grunts when moving cubes around.

Alexa might be smart and helpful, but Cosmo is the most fully realized artifical intelligence we've ever been able to invite into our homes. Just watch the way he wakes from his charging stand and then immediately starts entertaining himself by straightening his cubes:

And he feels like he has his own agency. If you sit back and watch, he won’t idly wait for you to do something with him; he’ll play with his blocks by himself, giggling at his own mayhem along the way. He’ll also ask you to play games with him—the phone will tell you that Cosmo wants to play a game of Quick Tap, for example.

That’s all great, and the sense that Cosmo is alive helps to make him fun to keep coming back to. Over the long haul, though, Anki needs to keep adding new skills and games to keep him fresh. Right now, you can upgrade him to have a total of six abilities (pick up, stack and roll cubes; knock over a stack, pounce on your fingers, and pop a wheelie), with more coming soon. As for games, there are just four at the moment, with a few more also coming soon.

The good news is that a software update in early December will add a bunch of features, like some new games (with names like Memory Match and Cosmo Says), an enhanced Explorer Mode, and even the ability to recognize and react to pets.

That's a great start and I hope Anki continues to roll out new capabilities for Cosmo. After all, he’ll need more to do to keep him relevant and fresh, or he'll end up in a drawer after a few weeks.

Anki has released a software developer’s kit available for Cosmo, making the robot an open book. Hopefully that means that more apps, games, and skills will appear for the robot not just from Anki but from other developers as well.

So Much Potenial

As much as I loved Cosmo, he also experienced an occasional glitch when I used him with my Android phone–he’d occasionally lose connectivity with the phone and sort of fall asleep in the middle of play sessions. The folks at Anki suspected a bad bot and shipped me a replacement, but the new guy did the same thing. Suspecting something else might be the cause of Cosmo's trouble, I switched to an iPhone, and he has since worked like a charm. Since then, Anki thinks they've solvced the problem, but I haven't had a chance to verify it for myself.

You also need to be aware that unless your kids have their own smartphones, they can’t play with Cosmo independently, because they will need to borrow your phone to interact with the little guy.

I also wish he could navigate back to his charging stand when it was time to go to bed, like a Roomba. Instead, you need to pick him up and place him there. (As an aside, Cosmo hates to be picked up and will fight you like an angry kitten if you try to pick him up when he’s trying to play.)

Cosmo isn’t the cheapest toy on the block–it’s priced at $180–and for that much money, it feels like he needs to do a few more things. Of course, more variety in playtime will come soon, which is encouraging. That said, it’s impossible to play with Cosmo and not grin from ear to ear the whole time. I wish I had this little guy when I was 10.

On the plus side, I have him now.