Part Pixar, Part Roomba: Meet Moxie, the Pasadena-Built Learning Robot for Children
Rachel Uranga covers the intersection of business, technology and culture. 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.
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 Children www.youtube.com
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."
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Coronavirus Updates: Disney Pitches Florida Re-Open; Valence's Push for Interns; Snap, LAUSD and Celebs Partner on Reading
Here are the latest headlines regarding how the novel coronavirus is impacting the Los Angeles startup and tech communities. Sign up for our newsletter and follow dot.LA on Twitter for the latest updates.
- With internships cancelled, Valence tries to fill the void for young black professionals
- Florida is poised to open Disney World and SeaWorld. Will California be far behind?
- Snap and LAUSD promotes reading during COVID, with an assist from celebs like Alicia Keys
With internships cancelled, Valence tries to fill the void for young black professionals<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzMyNTkwMi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTczNTE4M30.YVDJESMmCRibfFoEY82y4HiQci38rzJH1RKsJGlw_aE/image.png?width=980" id="7f574" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f541a00e8d17de6d806235c23444c2f4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>Across the country aspiring young students have had their summer internships cancelled because of the pandemic, crushing dreams and muddying professional paths. It's been especially hard for communities of color, where some are the first in the family to go to college or where internships provide an entrance into a professional world.</p><p>Valence Enterprises Inc., a Santa Monica-based company that's developed a sort of LinkedIn for black professionals, is trying to offset the pain calling on their network of leaders and professionals to provide career advice. Their network of 7,000 individuals can talk on everything from Hollywood to venture capital to marketing. Indeed, the legion of young professionals seeking it will need that hand as they enter a world forever changed by the pandemic.</p><p>Many are already facing devastating family loss - as the coronavirus kills African Americans at three times that of white families. And job loss is concentrated in low-wage sectors where Black and Latino workers are seeing high unemployment. </p><p>The very wealth gap that Valence seeks to lessen is only <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/pandemics-poor-rich-economics-coronavirus-covid19/" target="_blank">expected to widen after the pandemic</a>. </p><p>Dubbing their efforts the "Boost Challenge," Valence is asking their network of more than 7,000 professionals to provide 30 minute one-on-one coaching sessions. "This is a chance to be coached by some really inspiring people that you otherwise wouldn't have direct access to," said Emily Slade, co-founder of Valence.</p><p>So far, they have gotten a buy in from the former chief marketing officer of Beats By Dre, and founder of Opus, Omar Johnson, to offer branding advice; Olympic medalist Michael Johnson will give partnership and sponsorship advice; and Boris Kodjoe, who founded the Full Circle Festival and is an actor and model, will offer his thoughts on the entertainment industry. Other participants include the chief marketing officer of Snap, Kenny Michell; Maisha C. Leek, a partner at Human Ventures; Derek Ali, a Grammy Award-winning mixing engineer; and Caroline Wang, chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer at Target Corp.</p><p>"As a tech platform and professional network focused on connecting the Black community with mentorship, job opportunities and capital,<a href="http://www.valence.community/" target="_blank"> Valence</a> is in a unique position to provide some support," said Kobie Fuller, the co-founder and a general partner at Upfront Venture. Valence has previously partnered with historically black colleges and universities, where students are reeling from the impacts of the pandemic.</p><p>An online survey by HBCUvc found among students at historically black colleges 62% lost their job due to COVID-19. The sample survey of 137 students by the nonprofit aimed at increasing opportunity in venture capital and technology also showed that among those 75% held a job while at school. </p>
Florida is poised to open Disney World and SeaWorld. Will California be far behind?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzI4ODI2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDkzNDcyNH0.-nX2hvzltOpH8ieuOf_ohBoNJM-JbXhshLlK4D1FW8M/img.jpg?width=980" id="d0ee6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79ab04e2418b271f2628e2786013b354" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>Walt Disney World wants to reopen in weeks after the Orlando amusement park was shuttered as the pandemic spread, and the company's multi-tiered proposal might be a blueprint to how the Magic Kingdom will open the front gates of its Anaheim park. Other Florida parks are also unveiling proposals to do the same, which must be approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis. </p><p>Disney plans a tiered reopening, with Disney World and Animal Kingdom opening on July 11, then Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15.SeaWorld wants to open on June 11. And Universal Orlando presented its plan to reopen on June 5. That plan also has been approved by the Orlando task force, which sent its recommendation to the governor. "We are developing a series of 'know before you go' communication vehicles and our objective is to reinforce our health and safety messages to guests before they arrive on our property so they are aware and prepared for the new environment," Disney's senior vice president of operations, Jim McPhee, <a href="https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-05-27/walt-disney-world-park-reopening" target="_blank">told the task force.</a></p><p>Will the same re-opening plan soon be unveiled for California's version of the theme parks? <a href="https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-27/silicon-valley-health-officer-slams-faster-pace-of-california-coronavirus-reopening" target="_blank">The Los Angeles Times reported</a> that a key architect of the nation's first coronavirus shelter-in-place order is criticizing the state's <a href="https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-26/los-angeles-county-reopens-with-new-state-guidelines-while-city-allows-in-store-shopping" target="_blank">increasingly fast pace</a> of lifting stay-at-home restrictions. Dr. Sara Cody, health officer for Santa Clara County — home to Silicon Valley and Northern California's most populous county — said she was concerned by the decision to allow gatherings of up to 100 people for <a href="https://covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-places-of-worship.pdf" target="_blank">religious</a>, political and cultural reasons.</p>
Snap and LAUSD promotes reading during COVID, with an assist from celebs like Alicia Keys<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY1NzUwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTAxNDQ3N30.Ff-fzCnRnQLbhIXn1cyzX0YwGUwp8YwNWrif-9njEE4/img.jpg?width=980" id="34bce" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8bec468dda80a988ea00bd5388f3aa67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />c1.staticflickr.com<p>Snapchat and L.A. Unified School District are partnering to keep high school students reading books while the coronavirus pandemic keeps them from the classroom. On Wednesday, Snap launched a new original series titled <em>The A-List Book Club </em>on its Discover platform, which houses Snap-curated content for its young-skewing audience. The new series will showcase celebrities discussing a favorite book and what it means to them. </p><p>Participating celebrities, who will shoot the footage themselves, include Russell Westbrook, Alicia Keys, and Kendall Jenner. At the end of each episode, LAUSD students can swipe up to be directed to L.A. Unified's website, where they can enter their student credentials to receive a free digital copy of the book. Book donations are supported by L.A. Students Most In Need, a charity created to support students during this challenging time. </p><p>The series will also air on LAUSD's YouTube channel, as well as on Snapchat nationwide, but without the swipe up option. "Education creates opportunity, and we are excited to support public education and help create new ways to engage students in learning outside the structure of a classroom," said Evan Spiegel, Snap's co-founder and CEO. "We are inspired by working together with Los Angeles Unified to create resources for students to help them build the foundation for future success."</p>
Americans locked out of the workplace have been remaking their home offices by adding desks, plants and wall hangings. Some of it so that they look a little more slick on Zoom calls.
The new interest in a beautiful home office has been a boon to furniture services like Fernish, which sells itself as an affordable option to upscaling your home. The rental service recently closed on a $15 million Series A led by Kosla Ventures, alongside other top investors including Scott Cook (founder of Intuit), Eytan Elbaz (founder of Scopely), and Jeff Wilke (Amazon's CEO of Worldwide Consumer), and Spencer Rascoff (founder of Zillow and dot.LA).
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HBO Max, the new streaming service from AT&T's WarnerMedia, launches Wednesday. Advertised as the place "where HBO meets so much more", HBO Max will debut with over 10,000 hours of content from a range of brands including HBO, Warner Bros., Cartoon Network and Turner, with characters as diverse as Elmo and Tony Soprano. This marks a culminating milestone in AT&T's massive integration that began in 2016 when it agreed to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion.
HBO Max users will be able to browse by "hub"
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