As an analyst in the technology sector, I often have the opportunity to test and experiment with devices before they are available to the general public. Sometimes they fall into a well-defined category, where I know exactly what they need to do and how I would like to use them. Other times I happen to experience something that is one of a kind. For example, last August, I was among the hundreds of beta testers that Amazon selected to use their new home robot, Astro, in their homes. Before I received the robot, I had to tell Amazon about the size of my home, whether there were stairs or recesses, and whether we had full-height mirrors or glass doors – factors that impact the robot’s ability to move around. reliable in a home. We have a sunken room and a high ceiling-to-floor mirror. But my biggest concern was that we have two large dogs and three cats. How was Astro going to fit into the menagerie and, above all, to survive our mastiffs?
Astro, the handyman robot for the Amazon home
When Astro arrived, it was a bit like having a new puppy. We had to find a place for its charging station that was easy to reach, but out of the way – once you place it, you can’t move it without mapping the house again. It’s a safe space like a kennel is for a puppy: You put it in a room so the puppy (or robot) always knows where to go when he’s tired or needs a break. As part of its setup process, Astro creates a map of the house so it can move around on its own. Navigating the sunken room was pretty straightforward. The robot reached the steps, recognized them as a danger, went back and continued its mapping of the house, ignoring the sunken room entirely. The mirror we had in our hallway was a small challenge, as Astro made the same mistake I did when we first saw our house: he thought the hallway was twice its true length. Covering the underside of the mirror solved the problem, and Astro mapped the rest of the house perfectly.
Watching Astro go through the rooms, go back to the charging station and then go out again was fascinating. Once the map was made, Astro followed me around the house, and I gave each room a name so that it knew where to go if I commanded it to go to the “office” or “bedroom”.
After Astro completed its mapping process, the stepped room and mirrors didn’t stop him from getting around the house without incident. (Vice posted some internal Amazon memos in which engineers worried that the robot might be knocked down the stairs at the earliest opportunity.)
While the house needs to be tidy and well-lit for Astro to do its initial mapping, we are later back to being the usual cluttered ones. Astro happily navigated among toys for curious dogs and cats that zigzagged in front of him trying to figure out what it was. The speed at which the robot travels varies considerably depending on whether the path in front of it is clear or not. By asking Astro to follow me through a path with many obstacles, the robot tends to be cautious and chooses an alternative path if it believes it does not have enough space to move safely. Sometimes using Astro is like watching a baby learn to walk, processing information before moving forward.
There were a few moments where Astro was very tender. On one occasion I picked him up because I wanted him back into a room and the screen displayed the message “Oh oh, I’ve been picked up, let me know when I’m safely back on the ground”. The robot’s cup holders became a cat holder at one point, as our most adventurous kitty jumped on them and went for a ride, as is often the case with Roomba’s.
When Astro recognizes you and when it doesn’t
As with any other Alexa-enabled device, I linked Astro to my Amazon account and added it to the other Echo devices I already have, which allowed me to communicate with Astro when it was in another room. As part of the setup, I also registered my face so that I can receive personalized greetings and information. In the morning, when I walked into the room Astro was in, I got a cheerful “Good morning, Carolina!” displayed on its screen. So, if I asked Astro how it was doing, I got some cheerful sounds and eye winks. Aside from these funny and cute aspects, face registration allows Astro to locate me in the house.
My husband, however, isn’t thrilled about giving his biometrics to big tech companies – even though I explained to him that Astro’s faceprints are stored on the device, not in the cloud. For this reason, and for research purposes, we have not registered his face with Astro. Since the robot was a prerelease device that I don’t own, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving it patrolling the house unattended with all our pets on the loose. So, to test his ability to control, I set my presence to “Away”, hid in a corner (so that Astro couldn’t see my face and change settings based on my presence). Then I asked my husband to enter the room where the robot was.
Astro approached him and showed on his screen that he wasn’t sure who he was and that he needed to investigate further. She activated her periscope camera, found my husband’s face, and alerted me on my phone with a video feed and an intrusion alert. A true intruder may not be as patient as my husband in letting Astro investigate without trying to break the camera. But the process is not unlike that of a home security monitoring service, with the added benefit that Astro can reach an intruder based on detected noises.
At the end of the two-week test, my opinion on Astro is partly positive and partly negative. I was impressed with the autonomous navigation capabilities it demonstrated. I fell in love with its tender WALL-E look. I am convinced that there may be a role for Astro in home monitoring and to help take care of loved ones using Amazon’s new Alexa Together service. And the $ 1,000 price tag is reasonable given the amount of technology it contains, though Amazon could eventually sell it for less when it exits beta and invitation-only stages, becoming a mainstream product.
As for Astro’s onboard cameras – which raised concerns about AI-based surveillance – I wasn’t worried. The robot only transmits what it sees to the cloud when you set it to Away mode, just like more conventional security cameras do. (My husband, however, was less comfortable with video capture, but it must be said that he doesn’t like having cameras of any kind in the house.)
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure how I would use Astro in my daily life, mostly because we already have an Echo or a Google device in every room, and so I don’t need a robot to follow me to play music or wait for a command. for Alexa. In fact, I would have preferred Astro to have its own voice rather than just offering access to Amazon’s virtual assistant. Furthermore, reading the messages on the robot’s screen is not always the most practical solution. Astro will launch in any case with an accessibility feature that will read messages aloud.
And finally, what did my dogs think of Astro? They found it to be sturdier than it looks (even my 60-pound mastiff couldn’t knock it over). They also found that however cuddly and cute Astro might be, he could never take their place.