From AI-powered bunnies to ‘live’ figures, startup reinvents smart toys with ChatGPT-like tech and China-designed chips

By Che Pan

FoloToy is partnering with toymakers to upgrade traditional playthings with generative AI, creating interactive companions that can chat. Amid US export restrictions on AI chips, open-sourced LLMs from the US have helped Chinese startups come up with new uses for the technology. — SCMP

Two Chinese entrepreneurs are experimenting with generative artificial intelligence (AI) to transform traditional companion toys into smart robots designed to hold natural conversations with children, riding on a growing trend of technology-infused toys.

Founded by Larry Wang and Guo Xinghua last August, Shanghai-based startup FoloToy has partnered with over a dozen toymakers to use large language models (LLMs) – the technology that underpins intelligent bots such as ChatGPT – to upgrade toy designs and sell new products to consumers in China and overseas.

Their efforts are part of broader AI rush in China, spurred by the arrival of US startup OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late 2022 that opened the eyes of the world to the potential of generative AI, Wang said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post.

One of FoloToy’s most popular children’s products is Alilo Honey Bunny, based on an older educational toy bunny that was preloaded with recordings of bedtime stories.

Frank Murphy, an AI toy figure created by Yomiplanet in partnership with FoloToy. Photo: Handout

Adapted with an in-house-designed AI chipset, Alilo is designed to have human-like, interactive conversations with users, differentiating it from many existing conversational toys that can only answer to certain commands.

FoloToy is also branching into products marketed towards grown-ups.

Its latest partnership is with Yomiplanet, a Chinese maker of so-called art toys. Together, they launched a limited-edition “live” figure, Frank Murphy, designed to chat in six languages, including English, Chinese and Japanese.

Launched in December, this AI-enabled companion toy sells for 5,500 yuan (RM3,660).

A demonstration video posted by Yomiplanet on WeChat showed a person asking Frank what Apple founder Steve Jobs would say about the “world’s first AI toy figure”. Jobs might have said it was a rather “eye-catching technological breakthrough”, the figure answered.

Amid Washington’s tightened export restrictions on AI chips, open-sourced LLMs from the US have given smaller Chinese startups such as FoloToys unprecedented opportunities to come up with new uses for the fast-developing technology, even though these companies may not be as resourceful as Big Tech firms, with their abundant manpower and coffers.

Open-sourced models and application programming interfaces provided by ChatGPT and similar services allow developers to integrate advanced models into their own apps.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Wang said. “We can accomplish many things that could only be achievable at big companies in the past.”

But it remains a challenge for companies to make money from their AI creations. The commercialisation of AI is particularly difficult, Li Di, CEO of Microsoft AI chatbot spin-off Xiaoice, warned at a forum in December.

Wang’s focus on hardware, rather than purely software, puts it among a string of startups betting on AI to give themselves an edge over traditional smart gadget manufacturers.

Around the world, both new entrants and established tech giants are racing to develop consumer devices powered by the next generation of AI technology, which some people believe can revolutionise the way humans and machines interact and transcend the app-focused experience offered by today’s smartphones.

US-based startup Rabbit, launched by Chinese entrepreneur Jesse Lyu Cheng, last month drew widespread attention for its new AI-powered voice device designed to learn how users interact with their smartphone apps to perform similar actions on demand.

Humane, a Silicon Valley startup founded by former Apple employees who worked on the iPhone, in November unveiled the Ai Pin – a small screenless device that interacts with users through an AI virtual assistant.

While companies pursuing AI-related ventures have been experimenting with different business models, no one is certain yet about how to go forward, according to FoloToy’s Wang said.

But “AI doesn’t need to be that serious – it can be fun, too”, he said. – South China Morning Post

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

Next In Tech News

Social media platform X withholds some political posts in India after election commission order
Portugal's far-right Chega vows legal action over 10-year Facebook curbs
AMD introduces AI chips for business laptops and desktops
Startup Rivos raises $250 million to develop RISC-V AI chips
Bain proposes Japan's Kioxia IPO to clear $5.8 billion loan refinance
Meta oversight board reviews handling of AI-created celebrity porn
UK starts drafting AI regulations for most powerful models
UK plans talks with Big Tech to limit online harm for teens
Nissan says it will make next-generation EV batteries by 2028
UK to criminalise the creation of intimate deepfake images

Others Also Read