Yesterday, Amazon announced its “home robot”, a wheeled device called Astro It has a screen, a series of sensors, and a camera that makes a periscope on top of its body like a mast. On Astro ads, Amazon presents the device as a breakthrough in engineering and the realization of a long-standing sci-fi dream: to build a robot that can help around the house.
This is nonsense, of course. What Astro is, for better or for worse, is a camera on wheels.
Astro’s physical limitations are obvious. It has no arms or manipulators; there is no way to interact with the world other than colliding with objects at the level of the shin. You cannot navigate through the steps and according to the employees who worked on the robot and I talk to Vice, it is fragile and prone to self-destruction. “Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw himself down the stairs if the opportunity presents itself,” one told the publication. (Oh and that I absolutely can’t get you a beer – a recurring meme when companies try to promote domestic robots).
But Amazon still offers customers quite a bit with Astro, and for those concerned about the privacy implications of this technology, the basic utility of the device should be considered. Amazon says Astro will use facial recognition to identify people in your home and recognize intruders. (Again, however, Vice reports that this function malfunctions in the real world). The bot can be configured to “patrol” your home at night and can be activated and controlled remotely, allowing you to look through your periscope camera through your phone. In the Amazon ad, a couple uses this function to verify that they have turned off the stove.
This is silly, but it is also useful. These are features that many people will want. Everyone cares about keeping their home safe, and if you’re already investing in home surveillance but don’t want to put a camera in every room, Astro may seem like an attractive solution. (Whether people will pay $ 999 for the pleasure, and whether the Astro will actually perform as promised, are open questions.)
It’s also worth remembering that while many people distrust or dislike Amazon due to its constant mistreatment of workers, union repression, and tax avoidance, the company is still well loved by the American public. in a poll The edge ran in 2020, Amazon had the most favorable impression in the US of any technology company and was considered the second most trusted after Microsoft. So the fact that Amazon Selling this walking camera won’t necessarily put people off of the product.
Astro is also important to Amazon’s grand strategy. The company’s vision for technology is one of environmental computing – to build a network of sensors, smart speakers, cameras and digital assistants that are integrated into users’ homes. The company wants to provide convenience in organizing customers’ lives, ideally for a recurring subscription fee, just like with its Prime delivery service. And since acquiring video doorbell firm Ring in 2018, home security and surveillance have been an increasingly important part of this offering. So while many will complain that Astro is essentially a surveillance device, that suits Amazon well.
Personally, I think Astro is a half-hearted concept and part of a dangerous omnipresent and thoughtless surveillance trend. While I accept the fact that many people want this type of technology in their home, Amazon in particular has repeatedly shown a lack of care and honesty in the way it develops this type of technology. In the past, the company has sold racially prejudiced facial recognition systems and hacked security cameras; that aggressively associates with law enforcement and uses scare tactics to push your products to consumers. Looking at this story, I’m not sure why somebody I would trust Amazon to monitor these types of systems.
But this is where Astro’s appearance as a “home robot” comes in handy. For many people looking at Astro, it may seem like just a novelty; in fact, they are already compared to the “pets” of robots like Aibo. But I think like Facebook Ray-Ban glasses equipped with a camera, Astro’s purpose is not to solve any particular problem but to neutralize the underlying concept: to accustom people to having a camera that constantly moves around their house. Astro isn’t a home robot, it’s a camera on wheels, and that’s just what Amazon wants.