Amazon announced Wednesday that its home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it within homes—and in our everyday lives.
Broadly speaking, the new features offer more home monitoring. The capabilities include some standard fare: Astro will be able to, for example, watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users. But Astro will also be able to wander around the house and keep an eye on rooms as well as 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 home security camera system Ring cam 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 there seems to be no reason why the capability wouldn’t be something a homeowner could use to protect their own home).
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 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 about a house with Ring’s established surveillance system, might create even more problematic surveillance issues than either product did in their previous iterations.
Astro’s evolution as a security guard is a notable one. Astro was first introduced nearly one year ago, and within that time, 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 invites, but has since raised the cost to $1,450). The robot, with its big eyes and R2D2-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.
Still, last year’s pitch was that Astro could be a home assistant to make your life more comfortable and entertaining—a sort of cute, bumbling sidekick. This year, Amazon has recast Astro as a device with a much more serious mission, to provide another set of eyes on the things a person most values: their pets, their home, their livelihoods.
As with any surveillance technology that 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 roaming about your home. That might seem like a small step, but it’s a huge one for not only how people interact with and view home robots but also for Amazon’s involvement in our private lives.
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, namely Ring and Alexa, could well set it up for success. “Astro can provide these services seamlessly,” says Cakmak.
Amazon doesn’t make it a secret that its end goal is to know everything it can about your daily life, part of a vision for a home filled with “ambient intelligence.” Amazon’s Washington told Wired that the company recognizes that standard security cameras are offputting and threatening. Astro could be different, he said: “If you’ve got a mobile robot, it can be this smart glue for this future vision.” If it gains traction, it’s a vision that’s bound to change our relationship to the spaces we inhabit. Astro walks a line between Ring’s all-knowing eyes and Alexa’s chirpy helpfulness, making it potentially the most powerful, invasive home robot we’ve seen thus far.