Amazon's Astro is the ultimate test of whether we really need home robots
Can Amazon succeed where others have failed?
Katie CollinsSenior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Astro, Amazon's first home robot, burst onto the stage at the company's fall event on Tuesday and immediately stole the show. The newest addition to Amazon's lineup of doorbells, speakers and security cameras came as a surprise, even though Astro's development has been long rumored.
We shouldn't let this element of surprise deflect from the fact that Amazon is just the latest in a long line of companies, including fellow tech giants LG and Samsung, to bring a home robot out on stage.
Nearly all major technology companies are making big pushes in artificial intelligence and making a bet that virtual assistants and other smart products are how we'll interact with our gadgets in the future. Rather than swiping on our phone screens, we'll talk to ever-listening microphones around our homes or offices -- including the ones inside robots like Astro.
What sets Amazon apart from others that have built home robots is the company's scale in households and its ability to connect with consumers, said Jonathan Collins, smart home research director at ABI Research. This may help Amazon drive the new market for home robotics with Astro, in the same way it did for smart home hubs with its Echo smart speakers.
It helps that for people who already have a number of Amazon smart home products -- Ring doorbells, Echo devices and others -- Astro will slot right into their existing ecosystem, said Filipe Oliveira, senior analyst at Global Data. Amazon says Astro is more than just Alexa on wheels, but that will be a major selling point for many, he added.
While Amazon may be able to convince us to put ultra-smart, camera-equipped robots in our homes, privacy experts and others question whether we should want them at all. As CNET smart home expert Ry Crist noted, Astro likely isn't smart enough to know when we need privacy or to respect boundaries in terms of surveillance.
"It isn't for Amazon or any other big tech company to decide how much privacy we deserve in our homes," he wrote. "Our homes are meant to be safe, intimate spaces where we can be ourselves with our families without fear of discovery or judgment."
What's Astro good for?
Astro can do a number of things; it has facial recognition built in, along with a periscope camera that can check whether we left our ovens on. It can map our homes -- though so can the Roomba -- and follow strangers around too, assuming the intruder doesn't go up and down stairs (Astro, Amazon has warned, cannot deal when faced with stairs). In spite of these features, its only truly robotic capabilities are its wheels.
Collins noted that Astro is "limited in its robotics capabilities compared with some earlier competitors" due to its lack of ability to manipulate objects, but he added that Amazon has been wise to focus on its home security capabilities. Security has been key to people buying into smart home products, he added.
"Security is the most successful smart home use case and often an entry point for consumers," said Oliveira. This was one of the main use cases Amazon put forward during its presentation of Astro on Tuesday, although following the robot's announcement, Vice reported that leaked documents showed Astro struggled in internal testing to differentiate between strangers and household occupants.
Amazon rebutted these claims in a statement, describing them as "simply inaccurate." Nevertheless, Astro's true capabilities as a household sentry remain unproven for now.
"Offering products resembling something from a science fiction novel positions Amazon as an innovative company in the eyes of consumers and investors," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood said. "Furthermore, if it stumbles upon a successful category, it secures the first mover advantage."
Watch this: Amazon's Astro robot is part home helper, part surveillance machine
Not only will Astro be available to buy, but it will be relatively affordable. For initial buyers -- part of Amazon's invite-only launch -- the robot will cost $1,000, similar to an iPhone or top-of-the-range Android phone. When Astro becomes available more broadly, the price goes up to $1,450.
Forrester analyst Thomas Husson described Astro as the latest element of Amazon's "Trojan horse home strategy" to get its services into our homes by the conduit of relatively affordable technology. "So far, such personal robots have failed," he added, but that might not be the case with Astro, primarily because of its price.
Although $1,000 is affordable for a robot, it can hardly be described as cheap. Oliveira noted that Astro's price precludes it from being featured on Christmas gift lists in the same way Echo was during its first season. In spite of this, he added, by giving people a discount on the beta version of Astro, Amazon seems keen to replicate the success it had with the Echo when it was introduced. It launched the Echo by putting the product into people's homes for a modest price and allowing them to discover their own uses for it.
"If they do, Amazon will hit gold again," Oliveira said. "That would also mean a breakthrough for personal robots, a product that has struggled to generate interest among consumers."
The privacy question
One big stumbling block for Amazon could be the privacy concerns that have already been raised widely due to the prevalence of smart speakers and cameras in our homes. They've reached another level now that those speakers and cameras are on wheels.
Astro's cameras contain facial recognition to identify the people in your home, and the robot will follow anyone that crosses its path until it can tell who they are. Astro will notify you if something seems amiss, and you can watch its recorded video clips on your phone. It uses sonar-like infrared light pings to navigate around obstacles and create a map of your home.
Amazon tried to allay people's fears during its Tuesday presentation by boasting of Astro's privacy controls.
"Amazon has explained that all video and facial-matching data are processed on the device, which means the Astro doesn't send images up to Amazon's servers," Husson said. Amazon also allows Astro's owners to turn off the robot's camera and mic. But those maps of your home do get upload to Amazon's cloud.
With consumers becoming increasingly aware of how their data is collected, stored and used by big companies such as Amazon, it may still have a fight on its hands to prove that Astro is all friend and not a potential foe when it comes to privacy.
CNET's Crist called Astro an "adorable privacy nightmare" and a "face-scanning patrol bot from hell." And Bloomberg noted that it "could contribute to greater public acceptance of AI-powered surveillance."
Still, it's likely that not all users will be put off over privacy concerns.
"There is no question the Astro robot will become a lightning conductor in the privacy debate -- but ultimately it is up to consumers to decide whether they want this type of technology in their homes," Wood said. "This product will be the litmus test for convenience versus privacy."
A promising start
On paper there's a lot going for Astro as Amazon begins its campaign of wooing us to bring more of its products into our homes with a doe-eyed, knee-high, beat-boxing robot. "As a first step, [Astro] delivers useful functionality and is a step forward in delivering consumer robotics to a mass market," Collins said.
Amazon could be setting itself up for success if, as it promised, it can prove Astro is able to recognize the emotions of different people in the household and personalize their experience accordingly, Husson added. Amazon's combined expertise in industrial robots, home monitoring and natural language processing could well come into its own here.
Whether it succeeds or fails, Astro is undoubtedly an example of Amazon's willingness to bring "highly experimental" products into our homes and see if they sink or swim, Wood said. He added that Amazon has shown the discipline to evolve products that show potential, but equally, it will abandon products that fail to resonate with people (Fire Phone, anyone?).
Even if Astro doesn't take off right now, there's always next time. Amazon has already promised Astro 2.0 is in the works, which Husson believes might be the real test of the company's robotics expertise.
"If [it's] not a success this time round, be sure that Amazon will learn from this experience to iterate the product," he said.