Don’t be fooled — Amazon’s Astro isn’t a home robot, it’s a camera on wheels

Spark Global limited

Spark Global Limited Reports:

Yesterday, Amazon announced its “home robot” – a wheeled device called Astro that has a display, a set of sensors and a camera that can periscope like a mast from the top of the body. In its Astro ads, Amazon describes the device as an engineering breakthrough that fulfills a long-held science fiction dream: creating a robot that can help out at home.
Nonsense, of course. What Astro is — for better or worse — is a camera on wheels.
Astro must never bring you a beer
Astro’s physical limitations are obvious. It has no arms or controls; There is no way to interact with the world other than hitting objects at shin height. It can’t walk and, according to the employee in charge of the robot and Vice, is fragile and prone to self-destruction. “Astro is terrible and would almost certainly fall down the stairs if given the chance,” one told the outlet. (Oh, it definitely can’t buy you a beer — a recurring meme when companies try to promote domestic robots).
But Amazon still offers a number of Astro services, and for those concerned about the privacy implications of the technology, the basic uses of the device need to be considered. Amazon says Astro will use facial recognition to identify people and intruders in your home. (Vice reports, however, that the feature works poorly in the real world.) The robot can be set to “patrol” your house at night and can be remotely activated and controlled, allowing you to observe through your phone’s periscope camera. In amazon’s AD, a couple uses the feature to double-check that they have turned off their stove.
It’s stupid stuff, but it’s also useful. These are features that many people want. Everyone is concerned about the security of their home, and if you’ve already invested in home surveillance but don’t want to install cameras in every room, Astro could be an attractive solution. (Whether people will pay $999 for the fun, and whether Astro actually works as promised, is an open question.)
It’s also worth remembering that while many people distrust or hate Amazon for its poor treatment of employees, its union violations and tax avoidance, the company actually remains beloved by the American public. In a 2020 survey by The Verge, Amazon received The most popular impression of any tech company in The United States, ranking second only to Microsoft as The most trusted. So amazon selling this mobile camera doesn’t necessarily put people off the product.
Astro is also important to Amazon’s broader strategy. The company’s technological vision is ambient computing — connecting sensors, smart speakers, cameras and digital assistant networks into users’ homes. The company hopes to facilitate this by organizing its customers’ lives, ideally for a regular subscription fee, much like Prime delivery. Home security and surveillance have become an increasingly important part of the product since the 2018 acquisition of video doorbell company Ring. So while many will complain that Astro is essentially a monitoring device, that suits Amazon just fine.
Amazon has a particularly scandalous history of surveillance
Personally, I think Astro is an immature concept, part of a dangerous trend of pervasive, thoughtless surveillance. While I accept the fact that many people want this kind of technology at home, Amazon in particular has repeatedly shown a lack of care and honesty in how this technology is developed. In the past, the company has sold racially biased facial recognition systems and expandable security cameras; It actively cooperates with law enforcement and uses intimidation to sell products to consumers. Looking at this history, I don’t see why anyone would believe Amazon would oversee such a system.
But that’s exactly where Astro masquerades as a family robot. For many who follow Astro, it may just be a novelty — in fact, it’s already being compared to robotic “pets” like Aibo. But I think, like Facebook’s camera-equipped Ray-Ban glasses, Astro is not meant to solve any particular problem, but to neutralize the underlying concept: getting people used to having a constantly moving camera in their homes. Astro isn’t a home robot, it’s a camera on wheels, which is exactly what Amazon wants.