It's breathing. The chest rises and falls rhythmically, hypnotically. We guess it's the chest. Nobody's marketed a sleep robot before, and we're not even sure it's a robot. It looks like a pillowy four-pound kidney bean, about the size of a novelty prize at a carnival game. "Spooning the sleep robot during the night, you will be soothed to sleep," the sales literature claims, with "thousands of years of Buddhist breathing techniques."
To bring upon sleep, breathing has to become slow and even, says Natalie Dautovich, a psychologist and sleep specialist at the National Sleep Foundation. You can't fall asleep when you're huffing like a sled dog, but insomniacs fear bedtime, and fear raises breathing rate, and that makes it hard to fall asleep. The claim goes that, as you hold the sleep robot, called Somnox, you'll subconsciously match your breathing to its slow and steady rhythm, which will lure you to sleep.
Work began on the prototype Somnox in 2015 at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. "We were robotics engineers, personally exposed to the effects of sleep deprivation," says Julian Jagtenberg, Somnox's co-founder. "We designed a soft robotic prototype to help ourselves and our family members get sleep again," he says. “We fell asleep faster, we slept longer. Once people we didn't know started reaching out to us because they were having a hard time falling asleep, that was the moment we decided this shouldn't be just an academic project."
Somnox debuted on Kickstarter in November 2017, asking for €100,000, or about $123,000. After a month, 509 backers had pledged double that for an estimated July 2018 delivery, which Jagtenberg says the company is still on track to meet.
Catch Your Breath
Breathing has long been the key to relaxing and, eventually, falling asleep. The 4-7-8 Breathing Method, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015 and subsequently copy-and-pasted across the internet, suggested one such method to reduce stress and induce sleep. It directs you to breathe in for four seconds through your nose, hold your breath for seven seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds through your mouth. "We've found out people are having a really hard time doing [the 4-7-8 Breathing Method] because you need to be very focused and disciplined in order to get it working," says Jagtenberg, who acknowledges that it's an effective method. "But we humans, if you interact with one another, you start copying behaviors without even knowing it. We thought this relationship was very strong when it comes to breathing. If you feel it [through the Somnox], you will subconsciously adjust your own breathing."
The WIRED Guide to Artificial Intelligence
While few studies have researched breath-mirroring in adults, several have looked at its effects on newborns. A 1995 study by the University of Connecticut suggested that infants who slept with a Breathing Bear—a not-for-sale device that respirated and coaxed sleepy babies to copy its breathing—had slower and more-regular respiration and more restful sleep than the control group. A follow-up study published in 2003 concluded only that Breathing-Bear-babies developed a better mood, presumably from better sleep.
The Somnox hopes to product a similar effect. Looking at it and watching it in action, it's a stretch to call the Somnox "the world's first sleep robot." It just lies there and breathes—a convincing imitation of humanity, but not what you'd call a robot. "It depends on what your concept of a robot is," says Jagtenberg. "In our perception, a robot is a system that can analyze its environment with sensors that think about how to act upon that environment." Somnox is more like a Nest thermostat than a semi-mobile, sentient threat to humanity that falls down stairs.
So it's more like a smart pillow, one that will become smarter with software updates. At launch, it's only got inklings of intelligence: It can play white noise, meditation tracks, heartbeat rhythms, and audio books as you drift off. Bluetooth links it to a Somnox app on your Android or iOS phone, which you can use to speed up or slow down the Somnox's breathing rate and adjust the depth of each breath. After launch, Somnox plans two software updates later this year: an alarm that wakes you gently in the morning by moving and murmuring instead of blaring buzzers, and what Somnox calls a sleeping coach, which will be able to pair with a wearable fitness device and detect when you've had a particularly strenuous or stressful day, then develop a custom breathing rhythm for you that night to compensate.
Kickstarter backers will receive theirs in July. The second batch, taking pre-orders now for $549, will ship in October. So far, Somnox has 1,210 orders.
It's not quite a robot, and it's not yet all that smart, but the Somnox has something more important than limbs or a heart of gold: fake lungs. And would anybody really want to spoon a robot that could throw elbows and mule kicks?