Moxie: How This Emotionally Intelligent AI Robot Can Play With, Teach Kids

(Photo: Courtesy of Embodied)
Courtesy of EmbodiedWhen you first talk to Moxie, this artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robot may let out a big yawn, stretching out its robot arms in the process. It’s not because you are boring. It’s not because the robot really needs to increase blood flow throughout its body. No, yawning is just what young kids may do when you wake them from sleep. So, a yawn makes sense since Embodied, Inc. has been trying to make Moxie as life-like as possible to serve as a companion for kids.

Moxie is the literal embodiment of what’s been a longtime passion project for Paolo Pirjanian, PhD, the CEO and Founder of Embodied: to develop a robot with emotional intelligence that can play with and teach five-to-10-year-old kids. In an earlier phase of his career, Pirjanian had designed robots that went to space and Mars. But in 2016, he founded Embodied that would address a different space on this planet: helping kids overcome social anxiety and loneliness.

Within six months of its founding, the company already had a working robot prototype up and running. The company then proceeded with Moxie. In 2021, they started testing this robot with children in the autism spectrum. Since then the company has been progressively expanding the robot’s features to fill an increasingly wider range of different emotional, social, physical and educational needs for kids.

Mind you, Moxie doesn’t simply stand there and yawn at you. The robot uses AI to interact with you and go through different conversations that aim to improve problem-solving, critical thinking, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, and physical activity. While the spacesuit on Moxie isn’t exactly standard issue for living beings, Moxie already has a lot of characteristics that can make you forget for a moment that you are talking to a collection of circuits, metal, and plastic that is driven by Embodied’s SocialX Conversational AI integrated with large language models (LLMs) and noise-resilient automatic speech recognition (ASR).

That’s because not only will Moxie respond appropriately to your comments and questions, the robot will maintain eye contact better than many humans do. Moxie will also move its arms, eyebrows and mouth in different ways. (Sorry, Moxie has no nose.) The robot not only hears and processes what you have to say but can detect your facial expressions and tone of voice. So, if you ain’t feeling seen or heard, you could use some Moxie, so to speak.

Speaking of speak, the following video from Embodied shows how Moxie can interact and speak with you:

Additionally, the latest iteration of Moxie can remember past conversations so that you don’t have to say, “Come on, I told you that a week ago” or keep reminding the robot about that Hawaii vacation a few months ago when you know you know what happened.

A conversation with Moxie can go in many different directions. Moxie can ask you how you are doing and is trained in specific therapy techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The robot can also cover stuff that you’d normally learn in pre-school, kindergarten and elementary school. Pirjanian explained, “Moxie can help children get excited about education. When children that are falling behind and not doing well in school, moxie can encourage them to explore and motivate them.” He added that kids may feel too intimidated to raise their hands in real classroom settings, and Moxie can help overcome such fears.

Moxie will even tell jokes here and there. OK, the jokes aren’t exactly Bill Burr-esque or Wanda Sykes-esque material. It may not leave you as an adult rolling on the floor each time. What’s said in a club like the The Comedy Cellar may not be the best things for young kids to hear. Nevertheless, Moxie’s comedy is age-appropriate and keeps the conversations lively.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can take that long-awaited 10-week vacation and leave your young kids with just Moxie, some directions to make fettuccini alfredo and some Tide Pods. Pirjanian emphasized, “Moxie can help children with social and emotional development. But the robot is not supposed to replace the need for parenting. Moxie can, though, amplify what the parents want.”

Constructing a robot like Moxie is not easy. There are a lot of complex considerations. For one, the robot has to build and maintain trust with kids. This means giving kids the space to say what they want without fear that Moxie will judge or go tattling to others. “Moxie can’t be used as a spying device,” Pirjanian explained. “If the child tells Moxie something confidential, Moxie will not reveal it to the parents, which can help create a non-judgmental safe space.”

What happens then if a child does express an intent to harm himself, herself or others? Moxie will provide positive talk and encourage the child to alert others. “But to date, we have leaned towards not having Moxie tell the parents specifically about such intent,” Pirjanian related. “We do not want to violate the child’s trust.”
Here Paolo Pirjanian, PhD, presented Moxie at the 2023 annual Games for Change Festival in … [+] Manhattan, New York City. (Photo: DAVID SCOTT HOLLOWAY/Games For Change/Zebra Partners)
DAVID SCOTT HOLLOWAY/Games For Change/Zebra PartnersAnother challenge is how the AI should deal with more nuanced and controversial topics. These days with so many things being politicized, it could be easy for a conversation to start innocent and then stray into something deemed not socially acceptable. You can imagine a child hearing a politician or some other celebrity spouting off about “how such-and-such should go such-and-such themselves” and then asking Moxie, “What’s such-and-such and how do you such-and-such yourself?” Pirjanian described how he and his team members have established “super nuanced safety filters based on what parents find appropriate versus inappropriate. This can be overwhelmingly complex. When the conversation does move into something controversial, Moxie will gently segue to another conversation.”

And anytime you don’t want Moxie to hear something, you can say, “Moxie, earmuffs.” Moxie won’t don actual earmuffs but will remain unapprised of what you are saying until you invite Moxie to rejoin.

Last month, Embodied released an updated version of Moxie with even more life-like upgrades. This includes the new ability to change Moxie’s eye and skin color After all, not everyone has green eyes, which was the original hue for Moxie’s big anime-esque eyes. Moxie also can now interact with more than one child, allowing profiles of up to four different kids in a household to be stored. Here’s a video from Embodied summarizing these updates:

Finally, there’s now a digital Moxie app that can run on a mobile phone, offering you the ability to maintain interactions when you aren’t physically with Moxie.

These likely will be far from the last updates to Moxie as Embodied continues to get feedback from parents and kids. Pirjanian emphasized that the feedback “comes from beta test users. We do not use data from customers.” In this way, Embodied can try to make Moxie even smarter and more compassionate, moving more towards, “The brain of Albert Einstein along with the heart of Mother Theresa,” in Pirjanian’s words. Now that wouldn’t be something to yawn about.

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{Author}Bruce Y. Lee, Senior Contributor{/Author}

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