April 28, 2010

Robot Encourages Weight Loss

A new tool for dieters is scheduled to be released later this year, but this one actually talks to you and tells you what you need to hear.

A robot, named Autom, developed by Cory Kidd, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will allow dieters to have encouraging interactions with the 15-inch-tall device, as it counts calories and provides feedback about their weight-loss progress.

Autom has a unique computer inside its head that allows it to search out a human face in front of it and maintain eye contact. It greets the user with a female American voice, saying "Hello, I'm Autom! Press one of the buttons below to talk to me."

Users tap details onto the robot's screen in response to its spoken questions about weight, diet, exercise and goals and over time it builds up knowledge of the user's strengths and weaknesses. It then tailors questions and advice according to the knowledge it gathers.

Kidd, who has a doctorate in human-robot interaction, said the robot will be released later this year for around $500.

The multi-billion dollar US weight loss market has already been targeted by Nintendo with its Wii Fit and collection of games to help with weight loss and keeping fit, but Kidd believes his new technology will give dieters a more personalized way of slimming down.

The robot is a so-called sociable robot, a new advance in robotics that let robots adapt their behavior in order to interact more efficiently with humans.

Autom is a fairly simple looking creature; it has a head and neck attached to a rectangular box-shaped body with two stumpy legs. The face has two eyes, no nose, and a hint of a mouth.

Although it may look simple, it uses cutting-edge technology in human-robot interaction based on insights from social sciences and medicine.

"It draws heavily on human psychology -- so understanding how we as people interact with one another," Kidd told AFP. "It relies on cues that people use in everyday communication."

One example is how Autom looks down at the screen on its torso when asking for the user to punch information in, much like the way humans naturally glance at something they are mentioning.

Currently, a more developed model is being worked on that will use voice recognition technology so the dieter can speak to the robot along with using the touch screen. That model is due out next year.

Some experts in the medical field might have reservations about how successful the robot will be. Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas, is one of those people.

"For some people it could be a good tool. You need constant feedback so I can see how it would be beneficial but there is a novelty factor and some will just get bored of it when that wears off like they do with everything else," Sandon told AFP.

However, according to Kidd, the robot's human qualities, although primitive, were an important factor in keeping 15 dieters motivated during the trial run in the Boston region.

The trial also had 15 dieters use a computer running software identical to Autom's and 15 more used a paper log. Each had to stick to a certain eating and exercise routine.

The average time dieters used the robot -- 51 days -- was almost twice as long as those who used paper -- 27 days -- and 40 percent long than those who used the computer.

"Even if you have an animated character that looks exactly like Autom on the computer screen, you cannot have the same interaction as you can with an actual robot," Kidd says.

Kidd said the robot used in the trial was a rougher version of Autom, but was extremely effective at "engaging someone over a period of time and helping them to stick with whatever diet program they were on."

The fact that people actually humanized their robots made the information it gave them seem more credible. Some users gave the robots their own personal names and other even dressed them up in hats and scarves.

Kidd says users will have more possibilities in the next few years and in another 30 years, this model will "look very primitive."

"Technology has really advanced in the last decade to allow us to finally create something like this. A lot of what goes into this would 10 years ago have not been possible. Five years ago it would not have been feasible and two years ago it would not have been affordable," he said.

Kidd's company Intuitive Automata is based in Hong Kong and Autom also speaks Chinese -- both Cantonese and Mandarin.

Kidd is confident the robot can be adapted to use different languages and cultures as well as other health issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes, and chronic disease management.

The UN Economic Commission and the International Federation of Robotics forecast the market for robots will be worth about $52 billion dollars by 2025.


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