As part of its 2021 hardware announcements, Amazon unveiled both a camera drone that flies around your house as well as Astro, a robot that looks cute but is designed to observe and track you around your home, a new report alleges.
Astro is marketed by Amazon as a tiny wheeled assistant that realizes the science-fiction dream of a household robot that can help with daily tasks as well as provide some measure of home security. The company shows Astro acting as a combination of several of Amazon’s well-known devices, able to make calls and play music like an Echo Show, monitor a house as a security device like Ring cameras or the Ring Always Home Cam, or deliver items to specific users in a house.
But the The Verge’s James Vincent argues that many if not all the claims Amazon makes are “rubbish” and that it is instead just a “camera on wheels.”
Vincent’s skepticism isn’t without cause. Vice published a report that cites leaked internal Amazon documents as well as sources at the company who claim that the robot relies heavily on facial recognition and user behavior. Additionally, they claim the $999 device is heavily flawed, fragile, and prone to self-destruction.
Astro requires face and voices to be logged in order for it to function as a sort of mobile home security device. It uses that information to track specific people in a home and alert owners when an unrecognized individual is seen. According to Vice, users must “enroll” in the face and voice ID upon unboxing the expensive mobile robot. Amazon is generally perceived as a trustworthy company according to a 2020 Verge poll, so this requirement is unlikely to deter prospective buyers.
What might, however, is that the robot just might not work well for its marketed purpose and may end up being a household surveillance device.
“The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable,” a source who worked on the project told Vice. “The device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost. The mast has broken on several devices, locking itself in the extended or retracted position, and there’s no way to ship it to Amazon when that happens.”
On that self-destruction note, just like with the Always Home Cam, Astro reportedly struggles with stairs. While household robots like Roomba vacuums have been able to deal with household “cliffs” for years, Astro will reportedly “almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity.”
The issue with self-destruction was echoed by multiple sources, and another argues that the device is not anywhere near ready for public release.
So if Astro isn’t great at navigation, can break itself, and isn’t particularly good at most of the tasks that Amazon markets it, what does it do? According to those leaked internal documents, it just watches — all the time.
With a stated goal of making Astro an “intelligent” robot, it needs to observe subjects in a house constantly. It needs to fully map a home and track where it might get stuck and also know where high-traffic areas are that might cause it to collide with the human occupants. The device is supposed to learn over time, but to do so it must constantly surveil its surroundings and its owners. Typically, that means that it needs to be as close to one to one and a half meters away — somewhere between about three and five feet.
Vincent says that Amazon has a shaky history with its lack of care and honesty in how it develops this kind of technology, with racially biased facial recognition systems, hackable cameras, aggressive partnership with law enforcement, and its use of scare tactics to sell products. He argues that with that knowledge, he’s not sure why anyone can or should trust Astro to be any different.
He argues that it, like Facebook’s Ray-Ban sunglasses, isn’t to actually provide a service that is needed but rather serves to get people used to having a camera on them all the time.