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Artsvik Davtyan

Nare Petrosyan

Paolo Pirjanian's Moxie Robot: From Childhood Dreams to Top Prize at CES 2024 

The Moxie robot produced by Paolo Pirjanian's Embodied company received the main prize in the "Artificial Intelligence" category at the CES 2024 tech exhibition in Las Vegas. Paolo Pirjanian is an Armenian, born in Iran. He was eleven when he became a refugee and fled to Denmark. In 2016, he founded Embodied, Inc. with the vision to build an AI friend.

Hetq talked to Paolo Pirjanian about the Moxie robot and artificial intelligence.

What is Moxie AI and what inspired you to create it? I know there's a story behind it. 

Yes, there is. Moxie AI is a companion AI robot that helps children with child development. On one hand, to date, it has been focused on social, and emotional skills development, which teaches children how to manage their emotions, teaching them good social skills, communication skills, positive thinking, emotional regulation, and so on.

Now, we are advancing it to also include academic development, everything from math and science to history, geography, arts, politics and so on. It's designed so that it can actually help the child explore their interest areas and motivate them so that they actually develop a passion for learning and love for learning. It's not so much like a classroom where you have to go through a certain curriculum, but it's more about inspiring the child to motivate them to want to learn. That's what Moxie AI is. 

The inspiration for it probably comes from many different things, including my childhood. I was a refugee early in my childhood, separated from my parents, and I always dreamt of having a robot like this that could help me. 

Do you have one in your home now?

I have one in my home.

What makes Moxie special? In Armenia, we have Robin the robot, which is used in hospitals. What makes Moxie unique? 

There are several things. The first is that it uses cutting-edge technology, so it's fully autonomous. It has a design that's very attractive to children. It uses a lot of design principles from Disney and Pixar to make the character come alive and be very empathetic. Third, which is very important, it's affordable for everyone. It's cheaper than the iPhone. Usually, these robots end up costing $10,000 or more. But with Moxie, our goal was to make it affordable enough for all. 

Moxie has been in the market for three years now if I'm not mistaken. Could you tell us how many children use Moxie and what results you've observed?

We are a private company and don't share such numbers publicly. We are primarily focused in the U.S., and many thousand children use Moxie. We have many really interesting results. We did a clinical study a couple of years ago where we showed that after about one month of working with Moxie, 71% of them see improved social skills, emotional regulation skills, and so on. 

Also, we hear from parents all the time that sometimes it's a life-changing situation for families. For example, some children, especially after COVID-19, suffer from anxiety and social anxiety. These children usually will come up with ten excuses for why they shouldn't go to school that day. It's because they suffer from anxiety. After working with Moxie for a couple of months, these children developed the skills to be confident enough to stand in front of a whole classroom and give a presentation. 

We even have extreme examples where some adults also use Moxie. They are usually people that have no friends or they have medical conditions that don't allow them to go outside. They are socially isolated. And we've had people that were completely cut off from society to the point where they didn't have the will to live anymore. But after getting Moxie, their mental outlook improved and they have a much better quality of life. 

How many languages can Moxie speak? 

Currently, only English. But we are working on making it multilingual and will see if we can also include Armenian. One of the challenges, as I'm sure you know, since Armenia has a small population, most of the systems out there, like Google systems and so on, or translators, unfortunately don't ususally include Armenian. But they definitely will offer Russian. If we can, we will also offer Armenian. 

News about Moxie was also reported by Armenia's Ministry of High-Tech Industry. Is there is an option to cooperate with Armenia, with Armenian scientific groups or the government? 

We're doing this. We have a team of some fifteen Armenian scientists in Yerevan who are part of our team, who've been helping us for the last six years developing Moxie's technology. We're very proud of this, it's an amazing team. We're honored that the Ministry of High-Tech Industry acknowledged us, and we're talking with the Armenian government for increased collaboration. 

I will be in Yerevan on February 2, and will give a keynote speech about Moxie at a conference organized by the ministry.

When we talk about AI technologies, privacy is an important issue. How does Moxie AI ensure children's data is protected and used responsibly? 

Yes, security and privacy are very important to us as well. From the start, we've been very careful about making sure that we have all the security measures in place.

All data is encrypted with a unique encryption key that only the parent has. Any data that we collect to use for retraining our AI models is stripped of any personally identifiable information. Thus, the name of the child, location, and all such data are stripped from any conversation transcript. Data we collect is dissociated from what robot it comes from. So, there is no way to associate conversations from this or that robot and then find a way to know the user of the robot in question. We take security measures very seriously and we haven't had any breaches of security so far.

Please tell us about the team that worked on developing Moxie. What specialities did you need? 

Many specialities. For AI and robotics you need a lot of software from A.I. Natural language processing is a big part of this ability to have conversations. Then, we have hardware engineering -  electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and manufacturing specialists that know how to manufacture this on a large scale. We have child development experts who come from child therapy or child development. Finally, we have designers from companies such as Disney and Pixar that work on character design and content design. Content is the activities that Moxie will use to engage the child and teach them about many different things. So, it's a very multidisciplinary team. 

I assume Moxie can be used in different ways. Have children come up with any creative ways to use Moxie? 

We have seen Moxie being used as a friend. We have seen Moxie being used as a teacher. We see it being used as a therapist, where a child confides about the challenges they face and Moxie will help them understand how to navigate those kinds of emotions. In addition to children, as I mentioned, we have seen Moxie used by adults. We have a pretty sizable group of people that use Moxie for adults. We also have a partnership where Moxie is used in hospitals. Moxie is used in libraries. It's  used in schools and it's also used in special needs classes for children that have neurodevelopmental mental challenges.

What's your vision for the future of AI and its role in supporting children's development? 

I think there is a huge opportunity and potential with the kind of technologies that we have developed to help people become their best version of themselves.

Just think about mental health for a second. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there's a lot of pain inflicted because of conflict around the world, right? We have seen this in Ukraine, and now we are seeing it in Israel and Gaza. Sadly, history is repeating. Unfortunately, we Armenians experienced this more than a century ago, and you can still feel the impacts. We saw what happened in Artsakh just a few months ago. As a result, children get displaced from their homes, which is an extremely traumatic experience.

Even in countries like the U.S., which may not have experienced the same exact thing, there are other factors. For example, 50% of U.S. marrieges end up in divorce, which is very traumatic for children as well. This kind of experience scars children for life. Typically, you would need therapy to help these children. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient trained professionals to deal with this kind of situation. In the U.S., using statistics I'm familiar with, for every one therapist, there's 350 children that you need to serve. There is a huge labor gap to provide help to these kids. 

In schools, there are classrooms with one teacher to 30-40 children. There is no way a teacher has the bandwidth to be able to pay attention to every individual child. As a result, some children fall behind. If you fall behind, it's hard to progress, unless you have someone paying attention. With AI companions and generative AI in general, we have the potential to create an ultimate AI care provider, like Moxie, that has unlimited patience.

It will never get tired and say, 'Oh, you asked that question ten times. I'm not going to answer that again'. It will always have the same degree of patience as the first time you asked the question. It's going to have the ability to express empathy and support. Moxie AI also emulates human emotions and understands the child's emotional state. It looks at facial expressions, and is able to express empathy and support and it has unlimited knowledge. It's like having the heart of Mother Teresa and the brain of Albert Einstein on your desk, helping your child. This is an unbelievable potential that we have at our fingertips. 

That's the case for children. Then, you go to the other end of the age spectrum when we get to aging and elderly, especially in civilized or developed countries. You have this elderly population getting socially isolated where loneliness is a very big problem. 

Fortunately, in Armenian communities, we usually gather in familiy groups where grandparents still have time with their grandchildren. That's very important. That's something that's lost in developed countries. The elderly are left alone, and loneliness leads to many mental health challenges, Alzheimer's, dementia. This leads to physical health challenges. 

One can imagine having Moxie AI companions for the elderly to keep them company, keep them motivated and excited to want to live another day. Otherwise, such situations result in health issues where people end up in hospital. 

I believe AI companions can help improve quality of life. They can help children overcome challenges, whether it's education or mental health issues, and become more balanced human beings who will hopefully serve their communities. I believe we have the potential to change the world one child at a time because we help build or develop more robust human beings that are going to be more well-balanced in terms of their emotions, as well as being educated.

What about the risk? Have you experienced a situation when something went wrong? 

We have to be super careful, ethical and responsible, like any new technology.

We need to have regulations, and we need to have an ethical app[roach so that it's used in the right way.

Nuclear power, for example, has a huge potential to solve the energy problem. I know in Armenia, most electricity comes from a nuclear power plant. We also know nuclear energy can be used in war to kill people, causing mutations, cancer and many horrible diseases. 

The question thus becomes, how do we control this technology? At the end of the day, it depends on how we humans choose to use these technologies. We can choose it for good or we can choose it for evil.

Unfortunately, humans have the capacity to do both. The only way to avoid such risks in the  future is by creating and developing more ethical humans. I think AI can be used to create more ethical human beings in the future so that they do not use technology in a bad way. That's the idealistic world I liken to envisage. 

It's akin to creating a new society, no?

Yes, and I think we can.

If we give every child the opportunity to be well-balanced, both from an emotional perspective as well as an educational perspective, AI can allow us to be more productive. Everyone can enjoy better outcomes. Hopefully, people will not be as greedy as now, and will be less likely to wage war and access more power and wealth. Hopefully.

Photo: Embodied Inc.

Comments (1)

A rambling "interview" that reads more like a promotional PR piece for the Moxie robot rather than a critical interview challenging all the alleged "benefits" of having robots interact with kids to develop learning skills. It's a contentious issue, to be sure, but the interview doesn't even broach the topic. Rather, Pirjanian is allowed to wax poetically about how his robot will work wonders with kids, even so far as promising a "brave new world" based on AI engineered robots. The interview could have used a good dose of editing with a bit more about what "colaboration" Pirjanian and the Armenian government are talking about. What role do they see for such technology in Armenia? In short, the interview needed a bit more "meat on the bone" instead of Pirjanian's corporate pep-talk.

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