Part Pixar, Part Roomba: Meet Moxie, the Pasadena-Built Learning Robot for Children

Rachel Uranga

Rachel Uranga is dot.LA's Managing Editor, News. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.

Part Pixar, Part Roomba: Meet Moxie, the Pasadena-Built Learning Robot for Children

Wide-eyed and sweet, meet Moxie, the $1,500 robot for children.

The creators of the one-foot tall emotive machine want Moxie to become your child's newest companion. Geared toward autistic children, the company believes Moxie embodies "the very best of humanity" in a form of technology that fuels learning.

"What we are trying to do with this product is to amp up the benefit of social or, if you like, emotional intelligence," said its creator Paolo Pirjanian. "I want every child to be able to access this."

Over the last four years, Pirjanian, the former chief technology officer at iRobot, and his team of therapists, designers and engineers at Pasadena-based Embodied built a battery-powered creature that makes eye contact, reads facial expressions and converses with children. Pirjanian eventually hopes to develop these robots for older adults in isolation or those with Alzheimer's or dementia.

The venture-backed company has raised $34 million in the process, securing money from the funds of big name companies looking to bring artificial intelligence into our everyday lives including Amazon, Intel and Toyota.

"What Paolo has built with the team at Embodied is a new way for humans and machines to interact that involves emotional intelligence, emotional awareness and really tries to infuse humanity into a field of machines," said Jason Schoettler an investor and co-founder of Calibrate Ventures. "This is not an evolution in my view, this is a revolutionary step forward."

Moxie Makes eye contact, reads facial expressions and converses with children. Image courtesy of Embodied

The robot looks less like Stars Wars C-3PO than a character out of a Pixar movie with giant green eyes, rosy cheeks and a round head. It's pre-programed lessons are intended to guide children through development with discussions about feelings and relationships- difficult areas for children with autism to navigate.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 54 U.S. children have autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes interaction and communication challenging.

Researchers have become increasingly interested in the use of so-called social robots to help children with autism develop social skills.

"The robot actually does personalize its interactions for that particular child over time using machine learning," Pirjanian said. "The data that we are collecting will potentially help the healthcare community to have better insights into what techniques work for what kind of a child, because it has to be individualized for every single child."

But such personal data can become prey for hackers. Pirjanian said there's sufficient protections. The robot's information is encrypted and can only be unlocked by a parent's unique key. It's also audited by Privo for compliance with regulations governing children's online protection.

In a six-week study conducted by Embodied, their researchers found Moxie improved eye contact, self-esteem and emotional regulations for school-aged children with autism after regularly interacting with the robot. But, the company's study is of a small sample size and may not actually reflect real life outcomes.

Moxie the Robot: AI for Autistic

Other companies have sought to jump into the market.

SoftBank Robotics has bankrolled NAO, an educational robot that sells a version aimed at autistic children for about $17,000. RoboKind, a Texas-based robotics company built Milo, a $6,500 robot for autistic children that includes plus a $3,500 subscription fee. Both have versions that are aimed at the wider $3.9 billion educational robotics market that includes bots that teach STEM. But the market has yet to really take hold.

Moxie could change that and it could shake up the $20.4 billion consumer robotics market. The company opened up its site for pre-orders this week and will give customers access to a full-year subscription which includes so-called behavioral analytics and new content that includes "missions," which are often task or challenges that Moxie presents to children.

John Lee, a partner at JAZZ Ventures and investor in the company, said that he found the technology intriguing because it really improved people's lives. Parents with autistic children often struggle with diagnosis and learning how to guide their children toward resources.

"Embodied's mission is to build socially and emotionally intelligent companions that promote positive social skill building in children," he said in an email. "This might open up people's minds to how technology can be used in a positive way and, perhaps, that opens up new products that address other markets."

Maja Mataric is a pioneer in the field of social robotics who was one of Embodied's original co-founders but is no longer associated with the company. Mataric, who holds shares in the company, declined to state why the two parted ways.

But, she said one of the biggest challenges that companies like Embodied face is having the ability to test the robot fully to see if it offers true therapeutic benefits to children.

"Companies usually need to spin out a product in just a couple to three years. That's the startup money that they have. A clinical study altogether will take two to three years just to conduct. So there's no time," she said.

Still, she said robots hold promise. Earlier this year Mataric, the founding director of University of Southern California's Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center was a co-author on a study looking at the ability of robots to improve development for autistic children using the technology at home. In the study, Mataric and her team at USC left Kiwi, a social robot that gauges child interest and tailors response, at the homes of 17 autistic children for a month. The bot played space-themed math games and offered personal feedback. At the end of intervention, all improved math skills while 92% improved social skills.

Researchers have become increasingly interested in the use of so-called social robots to help children with autism develop social skills.Courtesy of Embodied

Still, she said there hasn't been wide scale studies on the use of robotics in the home.

"Robots are not aspirin," she said. "What happens in the worst case scenario? What happens in the best case scenario?"

"Sometimes the best case scenario could be the worst case scenario, right? What if the robot is so effective that the child adores it, but they adore it so much that they don't play with anyone else," she said. "Those are the kinds of things, one has to worry about."

The idea for the company can be traced back to Pirjanin's own experiences. Born in Iran, the Armenian Christian fled to Denmark after the Revolution as a teenager. Feeling lost and behind in his studies, Pirjanin eventually bought a computer and became enthralled with its possibilities after seeing a documentary on Pixar Animation Studios.

"I was fascinated. 'How can a computer this simple create something so lifelike?'" he said to himself. "It drew me into technology. I followed that curiosity."

He got a PhD there and moved to California to help develop robots for exploration on Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. From there, he went on to work with Idealab founder Bill Gross where he eventually helped develop a visual navigation technology that was the foundation of his company Evolution Robotics.

That company was bought in 2012 by iRobot, maker of the self-driven Roomba vacuum, for $74 million and he became the company's chief technology officer. iRobot, which last year recorded selling its 30 millionth robot, is arguably one of the few companies that has successfully mass marketed robots, a useful background for somebody attempting to convince parents that their children need robots to develop emotional skills.

Pirjanian said he left the company because he felt he hadn't been doing the work that had originally sparked his imagination. Embodied, he said, was a way to bring all the skills he had learned as a roboticist from machine learning to natural language processing to life. At first he eyed building a robot for the elderly, but learned about the benefits it was having on children.

Children who have social emotional and cognitive challenges were seeing benefits from a robot companion that improved their chances in society, he said.

"I knew very well this was a complete moonshot," Pirjanian said. "It's been a challenge but we are finally ready to launch."

Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @racheluranga. You can also email me.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.