We first met Autom in, believe it or not, 2007, when she was a fledgling project at the MIT Media Lab. It's taken half a decade, but the friendly little weight loss robot is now on Indiegogo, and will be shipping in six months at a price that's impressively affordable.
When Autom initially went up for pre-order about a year ago, she cost $865, which was rather a lot. Somehow, she's now on Indiegogo for just $200. The monthly subscription is back, but it's only $7 a month, and during the pre-order you can get a whole year of updates for $50.
So what can Autom do for you? Simple: she'll help you lose weight. You leave her in your kitchen, and every day she'll ask you about what you've eaten and how much you've exercised, proving helpful suggestions and feedback that's different every day and customized just for you, utilizing facial expressions and a simple touchscreen interface. She's supremely easy to use: she doesn't come with a manual, just plug her in and she's ready to get to work. Have a Fitbit? She'll track your steps for you, and other health-focused product integration is coming soon.
So now that Autom is affordable, we've got three questions: first, is a robot really worth the money when you could be using some sort of app to do the same thing? Intuitive Automata's CEO, Dr. Cory Kidd, explains why it totally is:
Dr. Kidd has performed studies with a half dozen robots and hundreds of people. In the case of Autom™, he completed a randomized, controlled study comparing Autom™ to other means of weight loss. Participants each received some means of tracking their eating and exercise: 15 people received the prototype version of Autom™, 15 got a computer with the same touch screen as was on the front of Autom™ running the identical software, and 15 were given a paper log like most diets still use. Each person was asked to keep up with their eating and exercise for 6 weeks, as would be done in most weight loss programs.
People interacting with Autom™ were much more likely to stick with their diet for longer. The average time someone used the robot (51 days) was nearly twice as long as with paper (27 days) and about 40% longer than with the computer (36 days). While not one person among the computer or paper groups continued the study past 6 weeks (and hardly anyone made it that long!), most who had Autom™ named her, dressed her up, and did not want to give her back at the conclusion of the study! Have you ever heard of someone naming their iPhone weight loss app?
The bottom line is that a robot creates a more powerful and long-lasting relationship with the people than other products. This is extremely important when the goal is to make healthy lifestyle changes in order to lose and keep weight off for good.
Question two: what's the deal with the monthly subscription? For your $7 every month, here's what you get right now:
- An automatic connection to a pedometer or bathroom scale, starting with the Fitbit pedometers and the Withings body scale.
- Updates to Autom's conversations so that she always has new, interesting, and relevant information to talk to you about.
- Regular software updates so that you'll receive all of these features including improvements and fixes.
- A complete online backup of your data.
And here's what you'll get in the future via online software updates:
- The ability to view and print your data when you're logged in to the myautom.com web site.
- The ability for Autom to not only know where you are, but also to recognize who you are after she's learned your face and name.
- Continued integration with other Internet-connected healthcare devices.
- Your Autom will have a microphone built in, and eventually, she'll be able to do voice recognition.
- You'll be able to download an iOS or Android application so that you can access your health data on the go and get advice from Autom when you're away from home.
- Facebook and Twitter integration.
- If you've taken part in a weight loss program recommended by a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist, they'll be able to see your progress at your next appointment.
All that seems like it's probably worth $7.
Question three: can you make Autom do your bidding? Answer: sort of. If you pre-order, you'll get access to an API that allows:
- Low-level control of her six motors
- The camera inside her eye
- The audio and microphone for sound in and out
- Define a series of movements using XML files for her to play out on her motors
- Text-to-speech (TTS) control including markup for improving pronunciation
- Higher-level behavior control using a simple markup language that allow you to combine motor actions with text during TTS
It's a start, and Inutitive is promising to add more high-level functionality later on, including access to relationship and conversation models. I just want to make sure that I'm able to program her to give me a pissed-off look if I admit to just lying on the couch and stuffing my face with Cheetos some days.
Autom's Indiegogo campaign has a goal of $50,000, but it's flexibly funded, which I guess means that if you order an Autom you'll get one no matter how much funding comes in. The deadline is December 23, and while you won't get your Autom in time for the holidays, Intuitive has committed to a delivery in June of next year.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.