Nearly two years ago I saw a little robot called Autom presented at a robotics panel I attended at the MIT Museum. Autom, developed at the MIT Media Lab by Dr. Cory Kidd, was designed to interact with people as they try to lose weight. While the idea seemed great, I couldn't help but notice that it looked a little ... well, creepy.
Autom, the original, and Autom, the recently designed. Note the change in footprint, increased screen size, and friendlier face.
After finishing his PhD, Kidd took the idea and turned it into a company called Intuitive Automata. They've spent the last two years working out of Hong Kong to redesign Autom and get her ready for mass production. The result is a sleek little robot with big blue eyes and a large LCD screen, meant to sit on your kitchen counter and interact with you each day. I have to say I find the new version much more personable looking.
Fundamentally, Autom is not entirely different than a lot of the online calorie and exercise tracking websites. The key difference -- the focus of Kidd's research at MIT -- was the emotional interaction component. In a demo I saw, Autom's software first asks a question; for example, "Do you want to tell me what you had for lunch today?" You then have the option to replay with something like "Sure!" or "Okay" or "Not really", each of which has a different emotional connotation -- perhaps you're particularly proud of eating well one day, or feeling guilty about sneaking a candy bar. By recognizing what appears to be your current emotional state, Autom can tailor her interactions with you to be as effective as possible in tracking your information accurately and encouraging you to do better each day. The early tests of the product showed that "people who worked with Autom stayed with their diet for twice as long as using a computer or paper-based diet log."
Since the version developed at MIT, Autom has gotten smaller, with better custom electronics and improved software based on lots of interaction studies. Intuitive Automata is ramping its way up to a larger scale trial, aiming to eventually be able to sell these to everyone to use at home, so that you, too, can guiltily admit to an adorable robot that you succumbed to a McDonald's McFlurry craving today.