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


Do you have a friend in me?


Astro, Amazon’s first home bridge bot, jumped on stage at the company’s fall event on Tuesday and immediately stole the show. The latest addition to Amazon’s range of doorbells, speakers and security cameras came as a surprise, though Astro’s development has long been rumored.

We should not let this element of surprise detract from the fact that Amazon is only the latest in a wide range of companies, including other tech giants LG and Samsung, to bring a homeboat to the stage.

Despite this, most of us still do not have robots in our homes, except perhaps for the kind that vacuums our floors. Amazon hopes to change that, but its ambitions leave much to rest on the Astro’s slightly sloping shoulders. The company believes it can persuade us to share with our money and earn a place in our hearts and homes where others have failed. It is a great unproven hope.

Almost all major technology companies are making huge strides in artificial intelligence and are betting that virtual assistants and other smart products are how we will interact with our gadgets in the future. Instead of stroking our phone screens, we talk to microphones that are always listening to our homes or offices — including those inside robots like the Astro.

What sets Amazon apart from others that have built home robots is the company’s scale in households and its ability to connect with consumers, says Jonathan Collins, director of smart home research at ABI Research. This could help Amazon drive the new home robotics market with Astro, much like smart home hubs with its Echo smart speakers.

It helps that for people who already have a range of Amazon smart home products – Ring Doorbells, Echo devices and others – Astro will fit directly into their existing ecosystem, said Filipe Oliveira, senior analyst at Global Data. Amazon says the Astro is more than just Alexa on wheels, but it will be a big 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 question whether we should have them at all. As CNET smart home expert Ry Crist noted, Astro is probably not smart enough to know when we need privacy or respects boundaries in terms of monitoring.

“It’s not up to 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 discovery or judgment.”

What is Astro good for?

Astro can do a number of things; it has built-in face recognition along with a periscope camera that can check if we left our ovens. It can map our home – though it can too Roomba – and also follow strangers around, provided uninvited guests do not go up and down stairs (Astro, Amazon has warned, can not cope when facing stairs). Despite these features, its only truly robotic technology features are its wheels.

Collins noted that Astro is “limited in its robotic capabilities compared to some previous competitors” due to its inability to manipulate objects, but he added that Amazon has been wise to focus on its home security features. Safety has been the key to people buying into smart home products, he added.

“Safety is the most successful smart home use case and often a starting point for consumers,” Oliveira said. This was one of the main use cases Amazon presented during its presentation of Astro on Tuesday, although after the robot’s announcement, Vice reported that leaked documents showed Astro struggling with internal testing to distinguish between strangers and residents in the home.

Amazon refuted these allegations in a statement, describing them as “simply inaccurate”. Nevertheless, Astro’s true abilities as a housekeeper are still unproven for now.

Price and availability

A major stumble for home robots in the past has been the lack of opportunity to actually buy them. Often they will appear on stage at tech shows – creates great excitement in the process – and then never be seen again. Astro is different because it can actually be purchased later in the year.

“By offering products that resemble something from a science fiction novel, Amazon is positioned as an innovative company in the eyes of consumers and investors,” says CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood. “Moreover, if it stumbles upon a successful category, it secures the first moving 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] delivers useful functionality and is a step forward in delivering consumer robotics to a mass market, ”Collins said.

Amazon can help create success if, as promised, it can prove that Astro is able to recognize different people’s feelings in the household and customize their experience accordingly, Husson added. Amazon’s combined expertise in industrial robots, home monitoring and natural language processing could very well come into its own 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 shown the discipline to develop products that show potential, but it will also abandon products that do not resonate with humans (Brand phone, anyone?).

Although Astro is not starting right now, there is always next time. Amazon has already promised that Astro 2.0 is on its way, which Husson believes can be the real test of the company’s robotics expertise.

“Whose [it’s] not a success this time, you need to be sure that Amazon will learn from this experience to replicate the product, “he said.

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