People have tried everything from acupuncture to hypnosis to compulsive teeth-brushing in order to shed a few pounds. Now, thanks to Cory Kidd, there’s a new weight-loss tool at dieters’ disposal: robots.
Over the past 14 years, Cory Kidd has worked at the intersection of human health and robot design, first as a student at Georgia Tech and MIT, where he received a PhD in human-computer interaction, then as CEO of Intuitive Automata. His interests in psychology, health care, and robotics have all come together with his latest project, Autom, a robotic personal weight-loss coach that keeps track of how much you eat, your exercise habits, and your personal fitness goals.
Not much bigger than a toaster, and with a tablet-like interface for recording your progress, Autom talks to you in soothing Siri-like tones, offering words of motivation and advice. The core algorithm driving Autom’s conversations allows it to adapt to each individual’s needs and habits, and adjust its daily pep talks accordingly. Autom also possesses expressive, blue eyes that even offer up the occasional wink. (The mere fact that the robot is able to wink without coming off as creepy is somewhat of a design miracle in itself.)
But while Autom is undeniably cute, is it worth the $199 price tag when there are countless free or affordable weight-loss apps and websites? Kidd says yes, and he's betting that consumers will agree.
"Studies have shown that when people have the same interaction with a robot and a screen-based character, they remain engaged longer with the robot and find the information presented more informative and credible," Kidd said.
For Kidd, the lessons he learned in academia have gone on to inform nearly every stage of Autom’s development, from the design of its artificial intelligence to its charming outer shell.
"Over the last decade, I have spent a lot of time conducting human-robot interaction studies and developing an understanding of how people respond to different features of robots. We combined that with the industrial design expertise of one of the other founding team members (Chief Design Officer) Erica Young, by studying product trends in home appliances and health care technology." As a result, Autom looks enough like an appliance to not look out of place in a kitchen (the obvious home base for a weight-loss robot) while possessing a handful of human-like traits to help it maintain a personal touch. It’s certainly come a long way since the early prototype, a gnarled mess of wires and eyes.
The simplicity and cleanness of the robot’s design is perhaps its greatest strength, acting as a blank slate that may inspire any number of emotional reactions from the user. "People project their own ideas about what a robot should look like onto it—Rosie from the Jetsons, Wall-E, or a retro '80s sci-fi robot. This tells me that we've done a good job balancing our own design with enough openness to allow for this projection."
Kidd says the benefit of his technology isn’t limited to dieters. "We're starting with weight loss, a notoriously challenging problem that we plan to help millions of people address in the coming years. Beyond that, we'll be launching products that help manage chronic disease and other related health care challenges."
But first Autom will undergo a major test as Intuitive Automata begins to ship models to customers in the coming months. "We're limiting the first production run to 1,000 units so that we can get more detailed feedback from our early users. We'll open up to distributors and retail channels towards the end of the year and make Autom more widely available at that time. If anyone wants to try her out this year, we still have some in that first set that aren't spoken for, but contact us quickly."