Some years ago, the folks at MIT Media Lab were working on an electronic pooch that was designed to help you stick to your diet. Wirelessly hooked up to your pedometer, your digital daily food diary and your digital bathroom scales, the dog would keep track of your progress. When you ask it, “How am I doing?” it would bark and wag its tail in an excited manner if you’d been good. Cheat on your diet, and it would flop to the ground and play sad music.
I’m a big fan of robotics, and I applaud the sentiments behind the project. Obesity is an, um, increasing problem worldwide and we need original solutions.
However, I think this particular project was barking up the wrong refrigerator. For one thing, it’s highly unfair to use a dog as a diet aid. Dogs are basically a stomach on four legs; in fact, I bet even a robotic dog could be bribed with a pork chop to ‘look the other way’ on your diet infractions.
For another thing, using a dog the size of an Aibo puts it at a distinct disadvantage. Here’s a quick quiz: How many times have you been tempted to kick that yappy terrier across the road? How likely are you to punt a dog who’s just given you a ‘paws down’ on your diet?
The no-mooching pooch system also required that you have 1) a pedometer, 2) a PDA or smart phone 3) a digital scale. In my experience, the people who own pedometers are those annoying, already hyperfit types. You know, the sort that smile while jogging, actually enjoy those cardboardy meal replacement bars, and who say irritating things like “no pain, no gain!” Here’s another quiz: How many times have you been tempted to kick that pedometer-owning runner that goes past your place every day at 5 a.m.?
A technology-based approach is a problem. Electronic gadgets are expensive, and research seems to indicate that it’s the poorest who suffer the most from obesity. There’s also the question of your technical ability — when your diet dog flashes “12:00” at you because you can’t figure out how to reset it, do you take that as a good report or a bad one?
You also just know that something like this would be subject to the same problems computers have. The email spam your diet dog would receive would either be depressing (LOSE WEIGHT FASTER TODAY! NEW PILLS!), or cruel (ORDER CHOCOLATE ONLINE NOW).
I think if we’re going to have robotic dog diet aids, why not put the dog to better use?
Guard dog: Even if you do succeed in getting past it to that cheesecake, you will have burned off lots of calories in the fight.
A bone to pick: Portion sizes too large? Robodog is pre-programmed to steal and bury the excess.
Dog bites man: Did you sneak a cookie? A dog bite in your ample behind should be an excellent source of what psychologists call “negative reinforcement.”
Dog goes walkabout: If you haven’t had enough exercise today, your dog will drag you out for a walk.
Woman AND man’s best friend: A very smart robotic dog would work out the source of the milk bone treats and just quietly bury the house weigh scales and pedometer. Think of it as a “don’t bark, don’t tell” policy.
Really though, I think roboticists would do much better to focus on developing more automatons for the house. I already own a robot vacuum; I love my dishwasher. I will buy the robot floor washer some day, and the automatic lawnmower as soon as I can afford one. Needless to say, I’m also hoping for a robotic clothes iron, and an automatic toy picker upper; I’m sure my husband would like a device that would follow me around to collect all my stray coffee cups, my misplaced glasses, and lost car keys.
But as for robot diet dogs, well… I think it’s safe to say that idea is pooched.
Photo Credit: Chandra Clarke (These are our dogs, Ginger and Sasha)