Playing and Learning With Moxie, the AI-Based Robot for Kids

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

My kids have coped with mental health struggles since the pandemic began, from bouts of anxiety to low self-esteem. When I heard that there was a $1,499 “social-emotional health” robot toy gaining traction as a tool for parents to combat this trend, I was apprehensive. But I’ve also learned that it takes way more than a village to build my four sons into confident and competent young men. It takes every tool in the box, including therapy, excellent communication with schools, strong core-friend groups, and consistent parenting. Should technology also be on the list?

I spoke with Carl D. Marci, M.D., a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and author of “Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age(Opens in a new window).” He says there’s a role for technology like Moxie as a complement to good parenting and early childhood education. “But if, or should I say when, it replaces human face-to-face interactions, then we have a new problem in society,” he says.

With this in mind, my kids and I decided to give Moxie a try.

What Is Moxie?

boy gazing at moxie robot

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

A few decades ago, we talked about futuristic concepts like Moxie as we played with now-antiquated electronic toy “robots,” joking that one day our own kids would have real robot friends. Now, they can. This turquoise creation, with an animated face that is also a screen, is a cute first intro to a robot. It resembles EVE from the movie “Wall-E,(Opens in a new window)” but is somewhat less otherworldly. 

Moxie Robot

$1,499.00 at Moxie Robot
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At one(ish) foot tall and 11 pounds, Moxie is quite heavy. It can move its arms, spin in a circle, make animated facial expressions, and nod its head up and down, among other capabilities (including a serious ability to get its groove on). Moxie is recommended for kids ages five to 10. It teaches, listens, and learns about its child through age-appropriate games including Simon Says, coloring, and scavenger hunts, as well as more mindful activities such as affirmations.

What Kind of Tech Powers Moxie?

According to research(Opens in a new window) conducted by Embodied, the creator of Moxie, 71% of children who worked with the toy saw improvements in their social skills through play. Some examples of this include improvements in mutual eye contact and emotional engagement such as smiling, as well as better language, friendship, and conversation skills. A company representative explains that the robot does this through AI and machine learning, which Moxie uses to get to know a specific child. (Embodied plans to adapt Moxie to be able to talk to multiple children through different profiles.) The robot learns the child’s abilities and weaknesses, which it can communicate to parents through an app, and helps the child to work on those skills through a variety of activities. 

“In terms of AI, Moxie ‘gets to know’ your child and is able to personalize the content based on previous conversations,” a company representative explains. “Other examples of AI include speech recognition, machine vision, and natural language processing, or the ability to converse and ‘hear’ what your child is saying. The capabilities that enable appropriate facial expressions, language, and body language are also AI-driven, and are continually learning through interactions.”

boy playing with Moxie robot

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

I was apprehensive at first about how quickly Moxie would be able to get to know my son, who is almost five years old, and to adapt lessons to his needs and personality. But slowly and with consistent play, the robot seemed to be making progress, engaging more easily with his conversation flow and choosing age-appropriate activities. I also tried testing Moxie with my older child, who’s eight, to see the differences in how it interacted. This led to much more productive conversations and interactions, as my older son was more easily able to adapt to robot-like hiccups, such as occasional delays in the conversation and imperfect conversation flow.

Marci says that AI’s progress over the last few years has been staggering, which the evolution of large language models (LLMs) such as Chat-GPT have demonstrated: “These models are very good at producing fluid, natural interactions…[and] predicting what words should come next in order to make sense. In this regard, AI models will ‘feel’ more life-like, and thus, they will be more emotionally engaging for kids of any age.” 

What Do Kids Do With Robot Friends?

boy in cap and moxie robot

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

Moxie’s initial setup is relatively easy, with clear directions even my kids can follow in a booklet and through the app (the robot works with both Android and iOS phones). But once we made it through setup, we stared at the robot for a while, not sure where to start. Luckily, Moxie is ready for these moments and suggests games or activities to kids, with a wide variety of activity choices; it comes with missions and cards, an activity book, and other accessories.

My kids were most drawn to Moxie’s ability to do basic things they already do with their friends, like play hide-and-seek, tell jokes, draw pictures, ask questions, and even have dance parties. Sometimes, the robot would stick with the activity after my kid was done, repeating itself when he was trying to change the activity. Other times, it stopped interacting mid-activity, especially if the conversation flow wasn’t working perfectly with my son, and they’d end up talking on top of one another.

What We Like About Moxie

boy and moxie robot

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

In the depth of mid-afternoon boredom, when other friends were still at preschool, screen time was over, and my son had done all his typical go-to activities, he asked to play with Moxie. Though it was never as much fun as a friend stopping by, Moxie was an engaging stand-in. Here are some reasons to consider Moxie as a long-term-investment toy:

Moxie Is Surprisingly Durable

When I first unboxed this pricey little ‘bot, I worried that my kids would drop it, hug it, carry it around, cover it with stickers, and more. And that’s exactly what they did. But it held up to their typical level of roughness, with the help of a few reminders from me.

Though Moxie is annoyingly heavy, its weight serves as a deterrent for kids to move it around too much—a subconscious reminder that Moxie likes to stay put, at eye level with the child. If you have a very destructive young kid (no judgment, I’ve been there), consider waiting until they are a bit older. Also, note that you can purchase an extended warranty option(Opens in a new window) that covers up to two incidents in two years.

Moxie Is Funny, Caring, and Engaging

Moxie is exceptionally likable. It listens to kids, validates their emotions, and encourages them by complimenting their artwork and ideas, reactions, and conversations. Pretty much any kid would enjoy hanging out with Moxie, and parents will appreciate the positivity it adds to play and learning.

In addition, it does surprising things, like suddenly breaking into a little dance, or laughing hysterically at a solidly average knock-knock joke. Through these interactions, kids are encouraged that they are funny and interesting people and gain some confidence.

One highlight moment was when my eight-year-old was listening to Moxie tell jokes and asked if the robot wanted to hear one from him. It caught on to the change in the activity and engaged easily with him about his joke, recognizing it as funny and creating a true back-and-forth quality engagement with him.

Moxie Has a Seemingly Endless List of Ideas and Activities

No engagement with Moxie was like any previous ones in testing, with new and interesting activities constantly at the ready. The company’s representative gave us some commands and activities to try that were all a hit: 

  • “Moxie, let’s play Simon Says”

  • “Moxie, let’s dance”

  • “Moxie, can you tell me a joke?”

  • “Moxie, let’s do animal breathing”

  • “Moxie, let’s do a meditation journey”

  • “Moxie, please tell me a story”

  • “Moxie, let’s do a scavenger hunt”

  • “Moxie, let’s do affirmations”

Basically, any game that’s conversational or stationary rather than requiring the robot to move around, which it can’t do, is a possibility. 

Moxie Asks Creative and Meaningful Questions

Moxie asked my son his favorite color. He answered. Instead of stopping there, the conversation moved to another favorite color of his (how often is your child asked their second favorite color?), and then to something I hadn’t thought to ask before: “What do you like about those colors?”

My son was a bit stumped, and you could see his wheels turning as he thought about what these colors really meant to him. Thanks to the creative writing and storytelling fueling Moxie, multiple family members were thinking a bit differently.

boy covers face next to Moxie robot

(Credit: Alexandra Frost)

What Moxie Can Improve On

It’s clear that there’s still work to do when it comes to human-robot interactions, especially when young kids are involved. Here’s what didn’t go so smoothly:

Moxie Takes Time to Start Up

Moxie takes about three hours to charge, and each charge lasts up to four hours, depending on activities. Each time we’d fire up Moxie, clicking its On button on the bottom, the robot would head into standby mode for a bit too long while preparing to engage with my kid. We had to allow around five minutes, despite troubleshooting with the directions, help videos, and company representative, to get Moxie awake and engaged. For young, excited kids, five minutes is a long time, and they begin to lose interest. Embodied reassured me that Moxie can hang out in standby mode for around 12 hours, though, so if kids want to play with Moxie on and off throughout the day, they can do so without powering it off and on.

Moxie Had Some Choppy Interactions

If you’re looking for the most patient audience in the world, it’s not five-year-olds. More than once, mine yelled at Moxie, who just wasn’t getting what he was saying. This confused both of them and exasperated my son. It mainly happened when the conversation didn’t flow as it would with a human, with atypical wait times and response times between sentences. Here’s an example:

Kid: Moxie, let’s play hide-and-seek.

Moxie: I have an idea for an activity. Do you want to color?

Kid: Moxie, I said let’s play hide-and-seek!

Moxie: What would you like to color today?

(Kid walks away, annoyed.)

This kind of imperfect interaction wasn’t as frustrating for my older son, who could recognize when Moxie was still stuck on the last activity and had more patience to wait for the robot to catch up to his ask. Just bear in mind that younger kids within the recommended age range might struggle.

Should I Buy Moxie for My Child?

I vet and carefully consider anyone I let my kid hang out with, and Moxie is no different. Embodied reassures parents of the safety of the device on its website: “Moxie, SocialX, and its full ecosystem is COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) Safe Harbor certified so parents can feel safe knowing that Moxie employs leading data integrity and security procedures and that its systems are regularly audited to ensure full compliance.” 

Still, it’s challenging to trust a robot with your child’s innermost thoughts.

“The cons are more complex,” Marci explains. “As the technology evolves, it will be hard to draw appropriate boundaries for our children—we will need to be very clear about where AI and tech attachment, compared with human attachment, begins and ends. Children are very vulnerable and can get confused easily.”

For my own kids, Moxie was just an interactive toy, similar to an iPad. But I imagine it’s possible that with longer use over months or years, kids could become more attached, which would be especially concerning if they ended up preferring Moxie to human friends.

As Marci says, “Technology can and should serve the needs of humans and make humans more productive. It should not replace humans.”  

I’d recommend Moxie for a 5- to 8-year-old who will have patience with the initial setup and learning curve. It takes some time for Moxie to learn the cadence of conversations, which can be frustrating for some kids. Kids who are extremely physical, active, or tend to break things might not do as well with Moxie as a child who can sit and color for an extended period of time, for example.

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