This absolutely wouldn’t fly if it was a Facebook product.
Earlier today at Amazon’s hardware event, the company launched a whole slew of products including upgraded Echo devices, Ring doorbells, a fitness tracker, and even a thermostat… although one product immediately stood out – Amazon’s $1000 home robot named Astro.
Modeled as a WALL-E-ish robot with dog-like proportions, the Astro can follow you around the house, respond to your voice commands, allow you to video-chat with friends and family, and even monitor your house while you’re asleep or away, tying in with their Ring video doorbell’s alert services. The robot sports a large screen for a face (with ring-shaped emotive eyes), runs on wheels (so it can’t climb stairs for now), and even comes with two nifty little cup-holders built into its rear so it can carry your water, coffee, soda, or beer around, being an attentive little butler-dog-sentinel that’s designed to be cute and approachable… unless you’re an intruder, of course.
The Astro works quite like the way your Roomba does. Multiple cameras around its base let the Astro map out your home, while a camera module on its head sits on an expanding periscope mount, allowing the Astro to see you at eye level, look above counters/furniture, and just get a better vantage point for its security systems. It stands roughly two feet high, weighs about 20 pounds, and comes with a battery docking system where it automatically goes to recharge. The tiny little robot responds to voice commands just like your smart speaker would. It ties in a bunch of Amazon services – you can video-chat through it, remotely monitor your home, ask it to follow you around, to dance to music, and even to fetch you stuff from the other room (although someone will have to physically put items in the Astro’s cup holder). Given that it can’t navigate stairs, Amazon expects you to set up Astro in the main living area, where it’ll be needed most – and where it can surveil and safeguard your entire house against intruders. You can set up specific “viewpoints” around your house and label rooms so Astro understands commands that tell it to go to specific locations. On-board cameras even come with facial recognition, allowing the Astro to differentiate between residents, visitors, and trespassers.
It’s long been rumored that Amazon was working on a home robot that would extend the capabilities of Alexa and Amazon’s other services. Tech journalists were quick to warn that it would just give Amazon yet another opportunity to monitor your home, going beyond just audio and video recordings. The Astro can move around your house, practically mapping your interiors to create a precise 3D model of your home – data that could be extremely valuable to the company in the future. People can be pretty quick to surrender their privacy and freedoms in the face of convenience, which is what makes the Astro such an interesting product to debate about. Sure, it’s modeled like a dog, sure it serves you with a whole slew of useful services and features… but who’s the real owner here? For $1000 you probably own the robot, but you surely don’t own any of the data the robot collects. In this seemingly uncomplicated equation, you’re not really the master… Amazon is.
The Astro is currently available as an invite-based limited release as the company tests the waters. Amazon claims Astro will be extremely helpful to people who rely on Amazon’s ecosystem of products and services, as well as the elderly and disabled. I, personally, have my doubts given Amazon’s relatively cavalier attitude towards complete user privacy and its history of sharing data with third parties, the police, and even government agencies.
Want something that looks cute, responds to voice commands, and can monitor your house at all times? Adopt a dog instead. At least it won’t upload your data to Amazon’s servers.