Boris Sofman: Waymo, Cozmo, Self-Driving Cars, and the Future of Robotics | Lex Fridman Podcast #241 | Summary and Q&A

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November 16, 2021
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Lex Fridman Podcast
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Boris Sofman: Waymo, Cozmo, Self-Driving Cars, and the Future of Robotics | Lex Fridman Podcast #241

TL;DR

Anki's Cosmo, a social robot with emotional intelligence, captivated users but faced challenges due to high costs and seasonal sales.

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Questions & Answers

Q: How did Anki's Cosmo differ from other social robots?

Cosmo stood out by intentionally deviating from human form, embracing its unique strengths and interactions, which allowed for more affordable manufacturing and highlighted the importance of character-driven experiences.

Q: What were some challenges Anki faced in the robotics industry?

Anki struggled with the seasonality of sales and the high costs involved in manufacturing, marketing, and managing cash operations. The company tried to transition to other product categories, but the challenges of forecasting and profitability remained.

Q: How did Cosmo impact users, especially children and families?

Cosmo created a magical experience for users, building emotional connections through its character's interactions. It received positive feedback from children, families, and even individuals with autism, showcasing the potential of robots for companionship and emotional support.

Q: What led to Anki's closure and how did the team handle it?

Anki's closure was a result of financial challenges, including difficulties in fundraising and the high costs associated with its business model. The team remained committed and proud of their achievements, leading to a celebration and reflection on their experiences.

Q: How did Anki's Cosmo differ from other social robots?

Cosmo stood out by intentionally deviating from human form, embracing its unique strengths and interactions, which allowed for more affordable manufacturing and highlighted the importance of character-driven experiences.

More Insights

  • Building character-driven social robots has immense potential for engaging human-robot interactions and emotional connections.

  • Balancing the constraints of cost, manufacturing, AI, and character development is crucial for success in the consumer robotics industry.

  • Timing and financial factors play a significant role in the success or failure of a robotics company.

  • The impact of robots on users extends beyond entertainment, with potential applications in companionship, therapy, and more.

  • Anki's closure showcases the challenges of scaling and profitability in the robotics industry, particularly for companies focused on consumer products.

Summary

In this conversation with Boris Sofman, the senior director of engineering and head of trucking at Waymo, the topic of discussion is the future of autonomous trucks, vehicles, and robotics. Boris Sofman was the co-founder and CEO of Anki, a robotics company known for creating the social robot Cosmo. The conversation explores the importance of character and emotion in robotics, the limitations of humanoid form, and the potential for robots to become companions and friends.

Questions & Answers

Q: Who is Boris Sofman's favorite robot in science fiction books or movies?

Boris Sofman's favorite robots are Wally and R2D2. He admires how these robots were able to convey intent, emotion, and character attachment without any language, solely through emotional interaction.

Q: How achievable is the creation of humanoid robots?

From an engineering perspective, creating humanoid robots is challenging but achievable. While replicating human form accurately may be difficult, the humanoid form itself is compelling. Boris Sofman explains how humanoid form robots, such as terminator-type robots, can coexist in society, provided the technology is developed and cost-effective.

Q: How did the idea for Cosmo come about?

The idea for Cosmo came about when Boris Sofman and his co-founders wanted to create a physical character that had an understanding and awareness of the physical world, allowing for emotional connections and experiences similar to those found in movies. They aimed to reinvent the toy and entertainment space by leveraging higher levels of intelligence through software.

Q: What was the vision behind Anki and Cosmo?

The vision behind Anki was to commercialize robotics and AI technologies by starting with consumer applications. The founders recognized a lack of innovation in the toy and entertainment space and saw an opportunity to reinvent those experiences. They wanted to create a physical character that could interact with people and provide rich experiences that were not possible before.

Q: How did the team behind Cosmo reduce the cost of the robot?

The team behind Cosmo focused on cost reduction by partnering with experienced individuals who had a background in consumer product engineering. They used inexpensive components but added complexity through software and AI. By leveraging the decreasing cost of components and incorporating affordability as a constraint, they were able to bring the cost down.

Q: How did the team create Cosmo's character and emotional interactions?

The team at Anki wanted to create a physical character that could convey emotions and have meaningful interactions with people. They partnered with individuals from Pixar and built a team with backgrounds in animation and character development. The character responses were parameterized, allowing for infinite permutations of emotions. They also built a behavioral engine that interpreted real-world context and mapped appropriate responses. The character-driven approach led to powerful emotional connections.

Q: How did the simplicity of Cosmo contribute to its success?

The simplicity of Cosmo, with only four degrees of freedom and limited capabilities, actually worked in its favor. The constraints forced the team to be creative in how they expressed emotions and interactions. They focused on the character rather than trying to replicate a human. The mistakes and imperfections of Cosmo were endearing to users, creating a sense of empathy and forgiveness.

Q: Can fulfilling relationships or friendships be created with robots without achieving general intelligence?

Boris Sofman believes it's possible to create fulfilling relationships without achieving general intelligence. He explains that it's about understanding intelligent constraints and setting expectations within those constraints. By having a focused domain and embracing the character-driven approach, meaningful connections can be formed. However, achieving a higher level of general intelligence might still be necessary for more advanced relationships.

Q: Do you think we will see companion robots like Cosmo in the future?

Boris Sofman believes that in the future, companion robots similar to Cosmo will become more prevalent. He suggests that a shift towards character-driven interfaces and the balance between hardware, AI, and character will be crucial. Unlike voice assistants, physical characters have the ability to initiate interaction and create a more fluid and comfortable experience. He predicts that we will see increased advancements in this area, but achieving a human-like companion might still be in the distant future.

Q: How far are we from the future where robots like Cosmo become trillion-dollar companies?

Boris Sofman acknowledges that the potential for character-driven robots to become trillion-dollar companies exists, but the timing and specific implementation are uncertain. He highlights the challenge of finding the right balance between hardware, AI, and character, with a focus on achieving a level of depth and appeal that surpasses previous attempts. While a similar concept may resurface and be successful in the future, it is currently hard to predict when that will happen.

Q: What factors will contribute to the future development of character-driven robotics?

Boris Sofman cites decreasing physical component costs, advancements in AI, and the continued progress in character development as factors that will contribute to the future development of character-driven robotics. He emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between these factors and leveraging the advantage of physical characters to create immersive and empathetic experiences.

Takeaways

In this conversation, Boris Sofman discusses the significance of character-driven robotics, focusing on the example of Cosmo. He emphasizes the importance of understanding emotional interaction and the impact of physical characters in creating meaningful connections. While achieving human-like companionship through robotics may still be a distant future, there is immense potential for the development of character-driven robots to transform various domains, ranging from entertainment to personal companionship. Finding the right balance between hardware, AI, and character will be essential in unlocking the full potential of this technology.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Boris Sofman, former CEO of Anki and senior director of engineering at Waymo, discusses the creation of Cosmo, a social robot with human-like characteristics and engaging interactions.

  • Anki aimed to reinvent the consumer robotics industry by leveraging higher levels of intelligence and creating rich experiences with affordable components.

  • Cosmo's success demonstrated the power of character-driven robots but also highlighted the challenges of manufacturing, marketing, and profitability in the robotics industry.

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