Amazon’s Astro is the ultimate test of whether we really need home robots



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Astro, Amazon’s first domestic robot, burst on stage at the company’s fall event on Tuesday and immediately stole the show. The latest addition to Amazon’s line of doorbells, speakers, and security cameras came as a surprise, even though Astro’s development has been rumored for a long time.

We shouldn’t let this element of surprise distract from the fact that Amazon is just the latest in a long line of companies, including other tech giants LG and Samsung, to bring a domestic robot onto the stage.

Despite this, most of us still don’t have robots in our homes, except maybe for the kind that sucks our soil. Amazon is hoping to change that, but its ambitions leave a lot to rest on Astro’s sloping shoulders. The company thinks it can persuade us to parting with our money and gaining a place in our hearts and homes where others have failed. It is a great unproven hope.

Almost all of the big tech companies are making great strides in artificial intelligence and betting that virtual assistants and other smart products are the way we will interact with our gadgets in the future. Rather than sliding across the screens of our phones, we’ll be talking to always-tuned microphones in our homes or offices, including those inside robots like Astro.

What sets Amazon apart from others who have built home robots is the size of the business in households and its ability to connect with consumers, said Jonathan Collins, director of smart home research at ABI. Research. It can help Amazon boost the new home robotics market with Astro, the same way it did smart hubs with its Echo smart speakers.

This helps people who already own a number of Amazon smart home products – Ring doorbells, Echo devices and more – Astro will fit right into their existing ecosystem, said Filipe Oliveira, senior analyst at Global Data. Amazon says Astro is more than Alexa on wheels, but that will be a major selling point for many, he added.

While Amazon may be able to convince us to put ultra-smart, camera-equipped robots in our homes, privacy experts and others are wondering if we should want them at all. As CNET smart home expert Ry Crist noted, Astro probably isn’t smart enough to know when we need privacy or to respect the limits in terms of monitoring.

“It’s not for Amazon or any other big tech company to decide how much privacy we deserve in our homes,” he wrote. “Our homes are meant to be safe, intimate spaces where we can be ourselves with our families without fear of being discovered or judged.”

What is Astro for?

Astro can do a number of things; it has built-in facial recognition, as well as a periscope camera that can check to see if we’ve left our ovens on. It can map our homes – although the Roomba – and also follow strangers, assuming the intruder isn’t going up and down the stairs (Astro, Amazon warned, can’t face any stairs). Despite these characteristics, its only truly robotic capabilities are its wheels.

Collins noted that Astro is “limited in its robotic capabilities compared to some earlier competitors” due to its lack of the ability to manipulate objects, but added that Amazon has been wise to focus on its security capabilities. home. Security has been the key for people buying smart home products, he added.

“Security is the most successful smart home use case and often an entry point for consumers,” Oliveira said. This was one of the main use cases that Amazon put forward during its Astro presentation on Tuesday, although following the robot’s announcement, Vice reported that leaked documents showed that Astro struggled to differentiate between strangers and occupants of the home during internal testing.

Amazon refuted the claims in a statement, describing them as “simply inaccurate.” Nonetheless, Astro’s true abilities as a domestic sentry remain to be proven for the time being.

Pricing and availability

A big problem for home robots in the past has been the lack of opportunities to purchase them. Often times they will appear on stage at tech shows – generate a lot of excitement in the process – and then never to be seen again. Astro is different, as it will actually be available for purchase later this year.

“Offering products that look like something out of a sci-fi novel positions Amazon as an innovative company in the eyes of consumers and investors,” said Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight. “Plus, if he lands on a successful category, he secures the first player advantage.”

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Not only will Astro be available to buy, but it will be relatively affordable. For initial buyers — part of Amazon’s invite-only launch — the robot will cost $1,000, similar to an iPhone
or top-of-the-range Android phone. When Astro becomes available more broadly, the price goes up to $1,450.

Forrester analyst Thomas Husson described Astro as the latest element of Amazon’s “Trojan horse home strategy” to get its services into our homes by the conduit of relatively affordable technology. “So far, such personal robots have failed,” he added, but that might not be the case with Astro, primarily because of its price. 

Although $1,000 is affordable for a robot, it can hardly be described as cheap. Oliveira noted that Astro’s price precludes it from being featured on Christmas gift lists in the same way Echo was during its first season. In spite of this, he added, by giving people a discount on the beta version of Astro, Amazon seems keen to replicate the success it had with the Echo when it was introduced. It launched the Echo by putting the product into people’s homes for a modest price and allowing them to discover their own uses for it.

“If they do, Amazon will hit gold again,” Oliveira said. “That would also mean a breakthrough for personal robots, a product that has struggled to generate interest among consumers.”

The privacy question

One big stumbling block for Amazon could be the privacy concerns that have already been raised widely due to the prevalence of smart speakers and cameras in our homes. They’ve reached another level now that those speakers and cameras are on wheels.

Astro’s cameras contain facial recognition to identify the people in your home, and the robot will follow anyone that crosses its path until it can tell who they are. Astro will notify you if something seems amiss, and you can watch its recorded video clips on your phone. It uses sonar-like infrared light pings to navigate around obstacles and create a map of your home. 

Amazon tried to allay people’s fears during its Tuesday presentation by boasting of Astro’s privacy controls.

“Amazon has explained that all video and facial-matching data are processed on the device, which means the Astro doesn’t send images up to Amazon’s servers,” Husson said. Amazon also allows Astro’s owners to turn off the robot’s camera and mic. But those maps of your home do get upload to Amazon’s cloud.

With consumers becoming increasingly aware of how their data is collected, stored and used by big companies such as Amazon, it may still have a fight on its hands to prove that Astro is all friend and not a potential foe when it comes to privacy.

CNET’s Crist called Astro an “adorable privacy nightmare” and a “face-scanning patrol bot from hell.” And Bloomberg noted that it “could contribute to greater public acceptance of AI-powered surveillance.” 

Still, it’s likely that not all users will be put off over privacy concerns.

“There is no question the Astro robot will become a lightning conductor in the privacy debate — but ultimately it is up to consumers to decide whether they want this type of technology in their homes,” Wood said. “This product will be the litmus test for convenience versus privacy.”

A promising start

On paper there’s a lot going for Astro as Amazon begins its campaign of wooing us to bring more of its products into our homes with a doe-eyed, knee-high, beat-boxing robot. “As a first step, [Astro] offers useful functionality and is a step forward in delivering consumer robotics to a mass market, ”Collins said.

Amazon could prepare for success if, as it has promised, it can prove that Astro is able to recognize the emotions of different people in the household and personalize their experience accordingly, Husson added. Amazon’s combined expertise in industrial robots, home monitoring, and natural language processing may well make sense here.

Whether it succeeds or fails, Astro is undoubtedly an example of Amazon’s willingness to bring “highly experimental” products into our homes and see if they sink or swim, Wood said. He added that Amazon has been disciplined to evolve products that have potential, but will also ditch products that fail to resonate with people (Fire phone, anybody?).

Even if Astro doesn’t take off right away, there is always the next time. Amazon has already promised Astro 2.0 is in the works, which Husson says could be the real test of the company’s robotics expertise.

“Yes [it’s] not a success this time around, make sure Amazon will learn from this experience to iterate the product, ”he said.


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