23 Sept 2009
|“Autom,” Intuitive Automata's prototype robot, is being developed
in Hong Kong as an interactive personal
coach to help dieters track
It’s about the size of a milk carton, but a robot being developed by Hong Kong-based innovators could soon prove to be a giant asset for people struggling to lose weight.
The device comes with a touch screen, and a head and eyes that move as it strikes up a friendly conversation.
“Hi, my name is Autom. I have been created to be a personal coach. I can help you with your weight-loss goals.” The user is then politely asked to enter details about how much they have eaten and exercised in the past day, and Autom responds with advice and encouragement. Her responses have been programmed into her software based on information gathered from health professionals.
The “interactive partner” is the brainchild of Dr Cory Kidd, a graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “For a lot of people, having a personal coach or a trainer is a great way to treat any sort of health- care problem. Ideally, we’d have someone we could talk to every day, but that doesn’t tend to be very realistic. So what we have with the robot is something that can create that sort of conversation,” said Dr Kidd, noting that the device could one day even help patients dealing with other health issues, such as diabetes.
Dr Cory Kidd and business
“We decided that here we could get a great quality of life, and we are very close to the Pearl River Delta, so for manufacturing purposes, it’s very convenient for us. There are a lot of incentives from the government,” said Ms Young.
Intuitive Automata was given a start-up grant from the Hong Kong Government. It also received office space, research facilities and support services through the IncuTech programme at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks.
Being in Hong Kong may also shorten the amount of time it takes to get Autom into the retail market. “There’s a lot of software, a lot of hardware, that goes into building this. It takes a lot to get it built in the right way. So the proximity to manufacturing is very important to us, rather than working with a factory from a distance and trying to get this built. We would have had to spend a lot of time going back and forth,” said Dr Kidd.
Autom is off to a good start, based on research Dr Kidd started during his days at MIT. He was behind the world’s first studies of how a “sociable” robot could be programmed to “learn” how people interact with each other, creating unique conversations based on previous chats.
Autom’s early prototypes were tested in a study conducted with Dr Caroline Apovian at the Boston Medical Center’s Nutrition and Weight Management Center. The research proved that a robot was a far better “coach” than software on a computer that tracked the same information. Dr Kidd and Ms Young said the advantage was obvious, even as researchers started arranging to pick up robots from the homes of people who took part in the study.
“People with the robot started to negotiate on the phone. They’d say, ‘Can we keep it a little longer?’” said Ms Young with a laugh.
“Even though the study was designed to run six weeks, by the time we got all the systems back, the average time someone used a robot was eight weeks, so it was used significantly longer than those given a computer or pen and paper to track their progress,” added Dr Kidd.
|Promotion of the new film, Astro Boy, by Hong Kong’s Imagi Studios, will get help from the real-life
As Autom turns science fiction into reality, the little robot is also set to take centre stage with the premiere of a new fantasy film about a future where robots help human beings. When Hong Kong’s Imagi Studios releases its new animated movie, Astro Boy, featuring a Japanese anime character, Intuitive Automata will supply its own robot to help promote the film.
“A lot of movies have portrayed robots as not necessarily being so friendly, or so nice,” said Dr Kidd. “So being a real-life example, and having a movie come out just before our product launches, is great timing for us and for them, we think. It will be an exciting and fun opportunity to be able to work together to show what’s happening with robotics in the real world.”