Amazon's Astro robot is part helpful assistant, part privacy dystopia
For decades sci-fi has been promising us helpful home robots, but progress and uptake have been slow. It often takes the backing of a big company to really kick things off, and Amazon may have heeded the call with Astro, its new overachieving Alexa-on-wheels. But whether this future is more The Jetsons or Black Mirror is up to you.
It looks like Astro can do most things you might ask of a smart speaker like Amazon Echo – users can use voice commands to ask questions, set reminders, make phone calls, listen to music, dictate messages, snap photos, etc. The difference of course is that this one isn’t stuck on the mantle but can roam around the house. Astro can be commanded to follow you around while on a call or playing music or podcasts, and when it’s not needed it’ll tuck itself out of the way, waiting for the wake phrase.
Taking some clear design cues from movies, Astro looks a bit like someone stuck a tablet on a Roomba. Splashed on the screen is a pair of big cartoon eyes, which it’ll use to trick you into thinking it has a personality – it can blink, wink, look happy or sad, and even closes its eyes when it’s “napping” on its charger. That display can also show what Astro is up to, bring up information on request, or display a video call, and it can rotate or tilt up to give you a better view, wherever you’re standing.
The robot can be set up with a map of the house to help it navigate, and a suite of sensors lets it avoid bumping into furniture, people or pets. Users can set no-go zones to keep it out of specific rooms or from escaping into the yard. A new computer vision system means Astro can be trained to recognize different people, or alert you if it detects a stranger.
With all this under the hood, Astro is, ideally, designed to be a kind of robot butler when you’re home, and a mobile security system when you’re not. The vision system apparently means the bot can come and find a specific person when a call comes in, a reminder goes off or even deliver an item someone else has placed in its little cargo bin.
When no one’s home, Astro takes on a different role. It can be set to automatically patrol the house, watching and listening for anything or anyone that shouldn’t be there, including detecting noises like glass breaking or alarms sounding. If it spots something suspicious, an alert can be sent to a user’s phone so they can check it out, and video clips can be saved.
Users can also remotely pilot Astro from their phone, to check on the house or specific things like if the stove was left on. A periscoping HD camera pops out of its head to give you a better view, extending up to 42 in (107 cm).
Of course, people will naturally be reluctant to invite the Amazon juggernaut into their homes and give them such mobile eyes and ears. The company insists that all facial recognition processing is handled on the unit itself, lights indicate when the cameras and microphones are on, and they can be switched off with a dedicated button on top. But constant reports of hacks of Internet of Things devices, mistaken recordings by voice assistants, as well as the police getting a bit too chummy with Ring (which Astro can sync to) will make many people ponder whether they really want to give these things wheels too.
Further, a report by Vice’s Motherboard, based on leaked documents and inside sources, says that the robot is “heavily flawed,” a “privacy nightmare,” and a “disaster that’s not ready for release.”
However, Amazon for its part says: "These characterizations of Astro’s performance, mast, and safety systems are simply inaccurate. Astro went through rigorous testing on both quality and safety, including tens of thousands of hours of testing with beta participants. This includes comprehensive testing on Astro’s advanced safety system, which is designed to avoid objects, detect stairs, and stop the device where and when necessary."
Either way, the first batch will apparently be available by invitation only to customers in the US by the end of the year. It’ll start at US$999.99, but will eventually retail for $1,449.99.
Check out the cutely-dystopian Astro in action in the video below.
Ed's note (Sept 30, 2021): We were contacted by Amazon post-publication and have added their statement to the text.