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Monday, October 31, 2022

Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

Will robots soon be protecting us? 


Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

The cute home assistant could be the most powerful, invasive home robot we’ve seen thus far.

By Tanya Basu  archive page,  September 28, 2022

Amazon's home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it in homes—and in our daily lives, the firm announced on Wednesday.

Broadly speaking, the new features offer more home monitoring. The capabilities include some standard fare: Astro will be able to watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users, for example. But Astro will also be able to wander around the house to keep an eye on rooms and entry points.

“This will start with doors and windows, so that Astro can alert you if something was left open that shouldn’t have been,” Ken Washington, vice president of consumer robotics at Amazon, said in a presentation on new Amazon devices and services. 

Amazon also announced a new collaboration between Astro and the Ring home security camera system, called Virtual Security Guard, which would protect areas outside the home from possible break-ins. Amazon, which bought Ring in 2018, pitched the pairing as a way to further guard small businesses from break-ins, by videotaping intrusions and calling the authorities (though it seems like homeowners should be able to use that capability as well). 

Ring’s approach to surveillance hasn’t been without controversy. As my colleague Eileen Guo reported last year, Ring marketed itself as a tool to protect domestic violence survivors, but it simultaneously provided access into survivors’ lives. Ring has also been called out for racial profiling and privacy violations. It’s reasonable to ask whether combining Astro’s ability to roam around a house with Ring’s established surveillance system, might create even more surveillance problems than either product did in their previous iterations.

Astro’s evolution as a security guard is a notable one. Astro was introduced nearly a year ago, and since then, reviews of the home robot have been limited. That’s because potential customers had to be invited to test the robot (Amazon offered Astro for $999 to early invitees, but it has since raised the cost to $1,450). The robot, with its big eyes and R2-D2-like structure, was undeniably cute.  But even those limited user reviews were mixed. Many people found that Astro was incapable of doing much more than delivering objects between rooms. It also hit snags in mapping rooms, and some users found its intense focus in following a person around almost creepy.

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Still, last year’s pitch was that Astro would make home life more comfortable and entertaining—a sort of adorable, bumbling sidekick. This year, Amazon has recast Astro as a device with a much more serious mission: to provide another set of eyes on our pets, our homes, and our livelihoods. 

As with any surveillance technology you invite into your life, using Astro will require an element of trust. This time, however, you would be extending that trust to a robot capable of moving through your home. That might seem like a small change, but makes a huge difference not only in how people interact with and view home robots but also in how involved Amazon is in our private lives. (In a statement, Amazon said that privacy was folded into Astro's design: "We know that customer trust is paramount, which is why we’ve taken a privacy-by-design approach with Astro since the beginning of its development.”)

Nevertheless, Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the University of Washington and head of the Human-Centered Robotics Lab, says Astro’s compatibility with other aspects of Amazon’s home surveillance ecosystem, Ring and Alexa, could well set it up for success. “Astro can provide these services seamlessly,” says Cakmak.

This piece has been updated with comment from Amazon.

by Tanya Basu in TechnologyReview

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