Cognitive Business: The First AI Toy for Your Dog

Cognitive Business: The First AI Toy for Your Dog
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Photo by Jairo Alzate

In this Cognitive Business interview, we talk with Leo Trottier, CEO, and Co-Founder of CleverPet, a Techstars and Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator portfolio company that has built the first AI toy for your dog and cat.

Leo Trottier
Leo Trottier
Source: CleverPet

What’s the story behind the first AI toy for pets?

My co-founder and I never set out to create an AI toy for dogs. It was really about noticing that homes were finally in a position to train animals automatically with software. And, in fact, it all started with my cat.

When I was in grad school for a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, I had ended up getting a couple cats - they didn’t allow dogs in grad student housing. I wanted to feed the cats, but I didn’t want to free-feed them, and as a busy grad student I wanted to minimize having to feed them every day. So, I bought one of those water-cooler style gravity feeders, and then to make sure my cats worked for their food, I took a yogurt container, chopsticks, and rubber band required that they hit the chopstick to get their daily food. In some sense, that was the first CleverPet prototype, even if we didn’t know it at the time.

A few years later, I proposed the idea of automating at-home animal interaction by using existing home entertainment systems to a couple of my neuroscientist colleagues at UC San Diego pitched them on how this could be a real company, and we got down to work.

What problem does CleverPet solve and what current options exist to address that problem?

People with dogs leave their best friends at home and their dogs become bored and destructive. They rip sofas, clothing, shoes, and the like. CleverPet addresses this by providing pets with a toy that keeps them entertained and feeds them at the same time.

In the past, the way those with dogs would address this was by leaving their dogs at a dog daycare. At $20 to $40 a day, this is out of reach for most pet parents. CleverPet provides an affordable option for those who can’t afford daycare or for whom daycare isn’t appropriate (given the risk of picking up diseases and bad behaviors), or those who are keen to learn more about how their dogs’ mind works and enthusiastic about keeping their dogs happy at home.

How does CleverPet work?

It’s quite simple. The pet parent puts their dog (or cat’s!) daily food into the CleverPet and then leaves her pet at home. During the day, CleverPet challenges her pet with sound and light puzzles. When the pet gets a puzzle right, food is dispensed. At the same time, the CleverPet collects data, runs it through proprietary intelligent software, learns the pet’s behaviors and creates new puzzles for it to solve - on an ongoing basis.

What interesting insights have you gathered from pets using CleverPet?

We have found that different dogs and different breeds have different learning curves. Perhaps ironically, smarter breeds can be more cautious when they first encounter the CleverPet Hub: they seem to recognize that it’s something very different from what they’re used to. By contrast, dogs like Pugs and French Bulldogs tend to be pretty rambunctious and food motivated, and tend to just dive right into using it right away. It also turns out that the answer to the question, “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?” is “yes” but it can take a bit longer. Lastly, some of us have been telling us thing like “we’ve learned our dog is left handed!”.

Tell me about the tech stack of CleverPet.

In its simplest form, CleverPet combines hardware, the cloud, and a mobile app. The smart hardware leverages the power of the internet of things, continuously communicating with the CleverPet, allowing us to constantly improve the A.I. that’s interacting with your dog. The hardware consists of motors, lights, and sound modules, controlled by what we call the “device layer”. What in most devices might be called the “app layer” we call the “behavior layer” -- this is the layer that communicates with the Cloud and is where the pet puzzles reside. Our backend synchronizes state across hardware and mobile app devices and that is where we gather the data that allows us to build the AI that interacts with your dog. The games work by gathering data from each dog, analyzing it, and then sending new software down to keep the puzzles engaging for your pet.

What makes the world ready for pet AI toys?

WiFi is finally ubiquitous, and it’s now much easier to build and sell affordable robotic hardware that connects to the internet. People are also recognizing the importance of animal cognitive enrichment, and coming to grips with the anxiety that their pets experience when they’re left on their own at home.

So, what is the future of AI pet tech?

The cognitive sciences show us that there is more that unites us with other species than divides us, even when it comes to our minds and brains. I believe that as AI for pets develops, we’ll also develop AI for humans and other species. Over time, I think we’ll discover astonishing qualities and abilities that foster a deeper sense of kinship with our animal cousins.

Interesting stuff. How can we learn more about you and order a CleverPet?

You can visit us at Clever.Pet.

“Cognitive Business” is a Huffington Post Tech interview series featuring awesome people in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) world. Written by Lolita Taub and written for business people.

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