Ride-on Unicorn for kids could be the “killer app” educational companion

The latent potential for personal robotics became very real for me while I was strolling the halls of the 45th Bangkok International Motor Show this week. There are always good ideas at motor shows, except the good ideas at motor shows in developing regions seem to be far more affordable and practical than they are in more advanced economies … and once more the Bangkok Motor Show delivered a pearl.

The star of the show for the attendees was unquestionably the XPeng flying car prototype that begins production in 2025. It was the first time Thailand had seen a flying car in the flesh, though XPeng’s rise as a credible challenger to Tesla and its insistence that the 2025 production date is solid clearly added to the narrative. The excitement is that a flying car will soon be attainable, if not quite affordable.

With six EVs already on the market, a Humanoid bipedal robot and several different flying cars under development, XPeng now has the credibility to become a market maker.

Hence it’s understandable that the flying car of parent company Xpeng got all the attention from the media. Xiaopeng Motors (known as XPeng) was founded just over a decade ago in Guangzhou, but growth has been rapid, funding has been forthcoming and in 2020, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, raising US$1.5 billion.

Tucked away at the back of the XPeng stand was a lonely exhibit with no sign, no video screen, indeed there was no information about what it was at all. Not surprisingly, no-one was paying the robotic Great Dane any attention.

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I recognized what it was immediately, and I struggled conceptually with why the crowd 20 meters away was ignoring something I considered ground-breaking and potentially more important in the long term.

The idea of a quadruped companion for children had been shown as a concept 18 months ago, but at that time the gargantuan looming presence of practical Artificial Intelligence had not been recognized and although the idea of the quadruped offering a pony-like experience was novel, I think most people consigned it to the same booty-shaking companion category as Sony’s Aibo and a battalion of other quadruped robots under development around the world.

The addition of an extra capable retractable arm instead of a tail has increased the capability of the Unicorn to potentially very useful as a personal service robot.

The first thing we need to recognize is that by turning the unicorn’s tail into a miniature industrial-quality robotic arm, the practicality of the Unicorn has made a quantum forward leap. Though details are difficult to pin down, my understanding is that the tail will be capable of grasping, lifting and carrying objects up to 3 kg and we can clearly see that development on all fronts in the XPeng empire appears to be at blitzkrieg pace, so as the software develops for such fetch and carry capabilities, genuine usefulness appears likely.

Being able to say to your unicorn companion, “can you pass me the 5/8 open ender please” when you’re wedged under a car might be just the start. XPeng is intent on leveraging the burgeoning capability of Artificial Intelligence and the Unicorn now looks to have the framework to become an intelligent, articulate and physically capable collaborator in almost any endeavor you can think of.

When the Unicorn’s hyper-dexterous tail isn’t needed, it tucks away safely between the rear legs.

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While I was pondering the pincer-like gripping device on the end of the jewel-like tail, a wonderful thing happened.

If XPeng Robotics set out to build a product that would appeal to children, my first few minutes observing the Unicorn convinced me it has achieved its goal. I have little doubt that my (sadly) anonymous little friend will remember this encounter – his clockspeed went up as I watched.

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I watched a small child see the Unicorn for the first time. He stood transfixed for a few seconds, then marched over and began studying the Unicorn in great detail.

The hero of our story was absolutely transfixed by the Unicorn.

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My encounter with this little guy (apologies – we do not have a name) thoroughly convinced me of the potential for this product.

I feel certain he knew what it was intended for from the get-go. He stared at the Unicorn in fascination. I swear I could see the synapses firing in his brain as he became absolutely absorbed in it and … even after a few minutes when mum wanted to move on, he was staying exactly where he was. It was a completely inanimate quadruped with no lights or sound, and although he might not have understood its full functional capabilities, rest assured he was sold!

Seeing how besotted my young friend became almost instantaneously, I feel certain there’s a future industry in children’s robotics that has significant upsides, particularly in being able to feed inquisitive minds with solid understanding at a time when they remember everything.

The only sure fire solution to everything is a better education for all, and having a companion that can answer any question (or depending on the AI rules you set as parents, refer the query on to you for assessment on how to handle) might have significant benefits in building better-balanced, better-informed humans.

Having a consistent, moral, informative and wise mentor on hand during this particularly formative stage of life aside, we’re hurtling towards the future … think of the Unicorn as training for what lies ahead.

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Mike Hanlon