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Canine coach keeps dieters on a leash

New Scientist

A ROBOT dog that monitors your daily food intake and exercise levels and warns you not to eat that cheesecake could encourage people to stick to their diets.

The health-conscious pooch connects wirelessly to the dieter's pedometer and an electronic diary of their eating habits, to calculate their daily calorie intake and expenditure.

While it may sound frivolous, its US developers hope the robot, a souped-up version of Sony's dog Aibo, could ultimately help in the fight against the western world's obesity epidemic.

The system is being designed by Cynthia Breazeal at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is famed for creating the emotional robot Kismet. It would use a pedometer, bathroom scales and a PDA connected by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to gather information about weight, activity and eating habits that people generally have trouble calculating, remembering and reporting.

A computer will then accurately analyse the data and present the results to the person through the friendly face of a robot, says Breazeal's student Cory Kidd, who is working with her to develop the system, which is still at an early stage.

Past studies have shown that people who accurately record what they eat and how much they exercise are more likely to keep their weight down, and that a real 3D robot is more convincing than an on-screen character. A robot could also offer support that humans don't have the time, patience or desire to provide.

Aibo does not talk. Instead he has been programmed to exhibit four different behaviours, representing lethargy, energy and two stages in between, in response to a verbal cue such as "How am I?"

Aibo will choose his response to mirror how the person should be feeling. If you have stuck to your daily calories, he will jump up and down, wag his tail, play vibrant music and flash the brightly coloured LEDs that pepper his 50 centimetre-tall plastic body. But if you have already had too many, he will move slowly and lethargically and play low-energy music.

"It's promising to look at mobile robots for defining behavioural change," says Tim Bickmore, a computer scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine, who showed recently that an animated computer companion could encourage people to exercise more.

Kidd will present the idea at the UbiComp conference on 11 September in Tokyo, Japan, and will begin a study on 30 overweight Bostonians next spring.

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Author: Celeste Biever

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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 3 SEPTEMBER 2005

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