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The Social Robot with a Weighty Purpose: Autom Combats Obesity
For less than the cost of your cell phone, a personal robot coaches consumers into a more healthy lifestyle.
By RBR Staff


“Social” robots (those that mimic human visual and verbal cues) are best known for adding entertainment value at robotics conferences. They give the audience and general public an idea of just how capable and communication-savvy robots are becoming. Many appear in educational environments, particularly with autistic children, but few have been developed with a consumer driven purpose in mind. Enter Autom: the robotic diet coach from Intuitive Automata that, with the help of PCH International, is finally breaking into the extremely lucrative weight loss market. Autom has a very specific and significant purpose: coaching the 68.8 percent of U.S. adults that are either overweight or obese toward healthier diet and exercise habits.

Most consumers already favor electronic devices for assistance regulating their dietary habits. There are 5,820 medical, health and fitness apps available for smartphones today. Electonrics make dietary tracking fast, private and convenient. So, with thousands of companies working to perfect assistive weight loss services, does it really make a difference if your “coach” is a robot?

Back in 2007, Cory Kidd, CEO of Intuitive Automata, was building Autom at MIT’s Media Lab. Dr. Cynhtia Breazeal, Founder and Director of MIT’s Personal Robots Group, even mentioned Kidd’s work during her 2011 TED talk and asked the same question: Does a robot coach make a significant difference or is the quality of the information provided what ultimately counts?

Breazeal referred to a test the MIT group conducted among civilians in Boston. The human trial compared the use of a traditional diet and exercise log, a computerized diet and exercise program and the Autom robot prototype. Breazeal’s group found that the more interactive the informational agent, the more positively engaged and productive humans felt their interaction with it was. A survey revealed that participants engaged with the robot over longer period of time than the other devices, the robot was trusted more and the participants felt that their alliance with the robotic technology was stronger.
Since PCH International picked up on Autom’s real market value, the robotic lifestyle coach has a real shot at widespread adoption, with a price point below the cost of the average smartphone and a sleek, friendly design.

TECHCRUCNCH―PCH International, the company that teams with startups and bigger brands to help manufacture and distribute hardware products, has announced its latest project: a partnership with Intuitive Automata to develop Autom, a $199 “healthcare robot coach” designed to help people lose weight. On top of the $199 price, monthly subscriptions to use the service begin at $19 per user.

Autom, as the robot is called, is designed as a personal lifestyle coach: it takes in data about the person who owns it and gradually adapts its responses to keep you on track. “The more it learns about the individual user, the more it customizes the feedback advice to keep the individual motivated,” the companies said in a statement.

Autom looks to be around a foot tall, and in addition to her own active belly, she has a set of eyes that follow you around the room and can blink and wink for extra effect. Watchful eyes in particular seem apt for a robot helping you watch what you eat.

As for the belly, it acts as a kind of dashboard for your food intake, where you can input what you eat, track how many calories you have consumed, and figure out what you need to do to keep yourself in line (that’s the part that presumably shows off how well Autom is getting to know you). Autom talks to you to offer suggestions in an unflappably calm female voice.

According to Dr Cory Kidd, the founder and chief executive of Intuitive Automata, “she” has a large data base of phrases to draw from.

“She has a bunch of information to draw from about diet, nutrition and exercise.

“The more she learns about a person the more she’s able to provide advice to them over time.”

The news was announced today by PCH on stage at the Dublin Web Summit. PCH is headquartered in Ireland and manufactures its products in China. Other notable deals PCH has made include a partnership with LittleBits in July to produce the company’s LEGO-style electronic modelling pieces as part of a mass-market push for the hardware company founded by Ayah Bdeir, a TED Fellow and MIT Media Lab alum. In June, PCH also purchased its own design studio Lime Lab to get further involved in the design and production process.

PCH says that the intention is to produce Autom on a mass scale “to help [Intuitive] cater for huge consumer demand.” So far Autom has only been distributed to hospitals, insurers and employers who have introduced a weight program.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed delivery will be in Q2 2013 at the latest. But here you can see a larger-than-life version on stage from earlier today. Below is the actual size as it will appear on your kitchen counter.

Autom is being developed as part of the PCH Accelerator program, which helps hardware startups bring smart ideas to market.

“We have been exploring the new consumer robotics market and have found a perfect opportunity in helping Intuitive Automata scale and bring Autom to market,” said Liam Casey, CEO of PCH International, in a statement today. “Dr. Cory Kidd, founder and CEO of Intuitive, has the vision and energy to make Autom a common device in every home and we are delighted to partner with him to make his vision a reality.”


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