Wild Ducks Episode 3: The Talking Dino That’s Turning the... Biz on its Ear
Wild Ducks Episode 3: The Talking Dino That’s Turning the Toy Biz on its Ear th Jeffrey O’Brien: Bernhard and I are on 35 Street in midtown Manhattan. There’s ice and snow everywhere. And we’re trying to keep up with a couple of wild ducks. One of them is an ex-Marine, Donald Coolidge. The other is his business partner, JP Benini. JP used to work in a different sort of bunker. He designed trading systems for an investment bank. Together they now run a hot startup called Elemental Path. And it’s getting attention from all over the world. JP’s carrying a mysterious black box about the size of a toaster. It’s got an unusual life form inside. It has the body of a dinosaur and the voice of, well, let’s go with a “gargling Yoda.” It’s a toy—but nothing like any toy you’ve seen before. People are talking about it like it’s going to change the way that kids play and learn. Bernhard Warner: Donald and JP call their line of gargling dinosaurs CogniToys. This one is named Dino. It cracks jokes. It calls you by name. A CogniToy remembers things … like its owner’s eye color and favorite food. It can answer questions, like “What’s the speed of light?” or “Why is the sky blue?” A child can actually have a conversation with it. Not only that. It has an evolving personality and it learns — so it actually grows with the child. Of course talking-toys have been around for a while. From my youth, there was Teddy Ruxpin and Speak-and-Spell. But the CogniToys dinosaur is a whole new breed. It’s connected to the cloud and powered by IBM Watson. You remember Watson, the world’s first cognitive system? The one that won at Jeopardy! in 2011? This Dino’s using some of the most sophisticated natural language processing algorithms in the world -- as well as Watson’s Q&A capabilities. We should stop the preamble, though, and get the show started. We made it to company headquarters. So, Dino…. how about a proper intro? Dino voice: Welcome to Episode 3 of Wild Ducks. O’Brien: Could not have said it better myself. Wild Ducks is a podcast about innovators using science, technology and ambition to change the world. The show is brought to you by IBM and produced by a small team of journalists. I’m Jeffrey O’Brien Warner: And I’m Bernhard Warner. And, Jeff, with an intro like that one, we both might be out of a job! O’Brien: Pretty impressive. And so is this story. We’re talking about more than just a new kind of toy here. We think CogniToys demonstrates something important about the roots of creativity and how emerging technology can fuel the imagination. In our first two episodes, we talked with Wild Ducks who were looking for new ways to solve old problems. Donald and JP are up to something different. They dreamed up CogniToys as part of a competition. The winners were promised IBM’s support to bring an idea to market and the opportunity to get under the hood of Watson. So Donald and JP boned up on cognitive computing and thought, OK, how can we have some fun? Warner: They really are the most unlikely toymakers you can imagine. They don’t have kids. They’re not from the toy business. Maybe I could see them creating a shoot-em-up videogame. But an adorable – and smart – talking dinosaur? Here. Let’s have them tell their own origin story. This is Donald, the burly, softspoken marine. Donald Coolidge: The thing that J.P. and I have in common is we both like to game. We’re gamers at heart. We’re both into the competition and gaming, and gaming’s fun. And this toy is kind of the culmination of our backgrounds. I don’t think this is something that would come out of a toy company. And we have the tech background and while we to like to game, we just thought it was a perfect application for a toy using Watson in our platform to engage the child in fun and educational content. O’Brien: More than 400 teams from 43 countries submitted ideas to the developer competition. Donald and JP had no idea of the odds. In fact, they didn’t even have a real sense of what Watson could do. But they figured a smarter toy could strike a chord. If a learning machine like Watson can help an oncologist treat cancer patients, what’s stopping it from being used in a toy that becomes a clever joke-telling buddy to a grade-schooler? Here’s JP explaining how Watson got his wheels turning. JP Benini: If this thing could answer questions, what about like a five-year-old that asks about a hundred questions a day? Can we make something that could just keep feeding this kid information and let them kind of guide the conversation, so to speak, or let them drive the line of questioning. And then as time went on we, we gestated the idea. We made it more fully formed, got access to the machine, and that’s when like the fun really started. Warner: What happened next is what counts as pure joy for JP. He got to hack Watson. JP: We were really trying to push to see what this thing could actually do. We were given those broad strokes of like here’s how it kind of works and then you do the thing like when you get a new like TV or stereo, you look at the instruction manual but you just kind of jump into it anyways. We had a workable prototype pretty much within 3-1/2 days and then it just became about how do we make this the most compelling example of the concept that we’re trying to get across. Donald: J.P. is a big kid and ... JP: … I’m a giant child. Donald: ... and technology is his toy and when it came to something that was fun and compelling, there’s no better toy at that point or better technology to play with really than Watson. It was something that he was up pretty much all night all the time getting this thing to work and it was really exciting going through this five-day hack-athon to give this demo back to IBM using their Watson technology. O’Brien: The team has come a long way in a short time. The toy’s still in beta, but it’s definitely real. And here’s how it works: You press a button on the dinosaur’s belly to talk to it. It’s connected by wi-fi. And it uses Watson’s natural-language capability to process questions and commands. The dinosaur then scans its dinosaur brain for a response. Warner: Wait, Jeff, a brain? O’Brien: Well, that’s the simplest way to put it. In science-speak, it’s called a corpus of knowledge. It’s really an ever-growing library that’s being updated by Donald and JP’s team every day. And to be clear, it’s not actually inside the dinosaur. It’s in the cloud. Warner: We should also say how JP stressed the security of the system. When a child gets the toy, the parents need to set up the account. The system also has controls that can allow only the parents who set up an account to access a child’s conversation log or track his or her progress playing educational games. O’Brien: And even with all that extra layer of processing, Dino still fetches what it needs and responds about as fast as a human would. As the library grows, the dinosaur becomes smarter and more personalized. So if today it doesn’t know the names of the dwarves in Snow White or a kid’s favorite knock-knock joke? Tomorrow it will. JP: It has to look and act and feel completely like magic. And the way we’ve kind of structured the experience is that you interact with the toy and you speak to it and it speaks back but behind the scenes that’s where all the heavy lifting is done where the speech recognition is done, where the generation of the answers and kind of sending them back, is all done. O’Brien: Remember, the plastic dinosaur is just the case. There’s no significant on-board processing happening. It’s all in the cloud. JP: I mean, Watson is a connected technology. It’s a developer, cloudbased setup. So to use Watson, you’re not going to shove Watson inside of a green plastic dino. It needs to be connected in some shape or form. O’Brien: The versions we saw were made on a 3D printer. Some still had circuit boards attached. But they weren’t far from what’ll be shipping in November for $99. Which means Donald and JP are going from a daydream to market in less than two years. Bernhard, you covered the toy business for awhile. That’s a pretty steep ramp, right? Warner: I’ve gotta say it. These guys are marching to a different toy drummer. The toy business is like a lot of established industries in that a few big companies dominate. And for a sector that’s focused on kids, it’s seriously cutthroat. It usually takes several years to get from concept to prototype to store shelves. When toy companies have something promising, they make a big splash at the American International Toy Fair, which now happens every February at the Javits Center not far from here. CogniToys created a huge buzz at this year’s fair, but not the old-fashioned way. More than 20 news outlets covered their story, from Wired and TechCrunch to the BBC. And get this—Donald, JP, and their dinosaur didn’t even set foot on the show floor. They rented a hotel room nearby and unveiled their prototype by invitation only. They also launched a Kickstarter campaign at the same time. If you go to their Kickstarter page, you can see a video of their very first focus group playing with the toys. The kids loved it. CogniToys had a pledge goal of $50,000 and ended up with over a quarter million. O’Brien: I was wondering about how IBM and Elemental Path worked together. So put in a call to one of the Watson researchers. Chris Ackerson: My name is Chris Ackerson. I’m a solutions architect with Watson ecosystem. I asked Chris, What did you think when you first saw the idea for a smart toy? Chris: Really it was that kind of light bulb moment that, wow this doesn’t have to be a web app that’s going to help marketers or financial services professionals. But really this is cognitive intelligence that could be built into any platform out there and really revolutionize any industry. O’Brien: Not only was the Watson team thrilled. They were inspired to think bigger. Chris: The reaction was super-positive and really I think helped get people thinking at an early stage of the ecosystem about what the possibilities really were. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this type of capability is going to transform the way that we think about designing and developing applications across all types of use cases. Kickstarter video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuXAy9l7cvc Child 1: Hi, My name is Lilly. Dino: Hi, Lilly. Nice to meet you. Child 2: Tell me a knock knock joke. Dino: Knock Knock Child 2: who’s there Dino: Lettuce. Child 2: Lettuce who? Dino: Lettuce in. It is freezing outside. [Laughter] child 3: My favorite color is orange. Dino: OK, I’ll try to remember. Your favorite color is orange. Child 3: See you later, alligator. Dino: In a while, crocodile. Child 4: Tell me a story. Dino: How about we make a story together? O’Brien: I showed that Kickstarter video to my kids. How do you think they reacted? Warner: Let me guess … Dad, Dad, I want it! O’Brien: Exactly! But I also showed it to some parents, and it made them light up, too. A few of them said, If this toy can really learn and grow with my child maybe … it could help with a learning disorder. Warner: Right. The toy is designed for kids from between 4 and 7 years old. And it seems like there’d be huge potential for it in education. So, we asked Donald and JP point blank. Can you imagine CogniToys helping kids on the autism spectrum? Here’s Donald. Donald: There’s been no shortage of comments and messages to us from our Kickstarter campaign about parents who have children with some type of learning disability or learning disorder. The first thing parents of kids with autism think about is, can this toy help the child? And that’s not something that we’ve been planning on or focusing on or addressing children on the spectrum of autism. But parents go there, we don’t. Warner: Donald’s reticence is understandable. It’s hard enough just trying to break into this cutthroat business. Now he and JP are getting pressure to expand Dino’s capabilities. And it’s not just from parents. Donald: And one of the best messages I’ve had yet was an 11-year-old kid who reached out and said I really love science and intelligent technology. Can you make a version for me? Can you make a version for an older kid? I want to say yes. The initial product isn’t for 11-year-olds but it’s really compelling when kids that are way above the age group we’re targeting want the toy and want something for them. It just shows how much demand there is out there for more interactive and personalized toys. Warner: Here’s the thing about something that is inherently emergent. Not only does it keep getting smarter … it keeps triggering new ideas in others. O’Brien: However it ultimately does in the marketplace, it’s been fascinating to see how JP and Donald have already managed to spark imaginations across all kinds of divides. Young kids want to play with Dino. Older kids want their own version. Educators want to use it to help with teaching. And of course JP and Donald have their own ideas. They can see cognitive computing being an awesome tool in video games. This dinosaur is creating a flywheel effect – the kind you sometimes see when the conditions are just right. IBM puts Watson into the marketplace. And Watson inspires an unlikely duo to make a learning dinosaur that they really have no business making. That dinosaur captures attention and people start seeing it the same way that JP and Donald first saw Watson. As an opportunity. To solve a problem. To address a challenge. To help kids learn. To change the world. That’s what grabs me. This isn’t a story about a toy or a new idea or even a new platform. It’s a window into how technology can bring out the wild duck in all of us. And that wraps up another episode of Wild Ducks. You can read a Q&A with JP Benini at ibm.com/wildducks as well as some photos of the CogniToys dinosaur and a cool infographic about the history of talking toys. I’m Jeffrey O’Brien Warner: And I’m Bernhard Warner. Follow us on Twitter @IBMWildDucks. Usually we like to thank our sources right about here. But in this case, how about we just give the last word to Dino? O’Brien: Actually, I also want to do an ending, too. How about, say, thanks for listening. Talk to you next time. Dino: Thanks for listening. Talk to you next time.