Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Astro, the adorable Amazon robot that prepares a Big Brother

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Amazon launched its Astro home robot for sale in the summer of 2021. It presented it as a home helper that also included surveillance functions. It was well received for its good-natured appearance, reminiscent of R2-D2, the friendly android from the galactic saga, but it has also been criticized for its lack of usefulness: it has no arms and, in practice, it is an Alexa voice assistant with wheels and with video cameras.

The company has just announced an update to the robot’s software that will bring new features. It will use its front and periscopic cameras, which until now were used to make video calls and inspect the house remotely, to detect if there are doors or windows that are not properly closed, in which case it will notify the owner. It also prepares another improvement that will allow you to know if you are in the presence of dogs or cats and record videos of them.

Another novelty presented by Astro is its integration with Ring smart video door phones and surveillance cameras, very popular in the US. The robot would thus become a mobile extension of Amazon’s surveillance network. The user can control it from the app when he is away from home to go through the different rooms and see what happens in them. From now on, he will also perform those tasks himself. That function was already covered by Always Home Cam, a drone camera available only in the US that moves around the home on predefined routes. But it’s nicer to bump into a little robot with big round eyes than a flying camera.

According to Amazon, thousands of small businesses are turning to Ring to protect their businesses. “We believe that it can be a good use case for Astro”, reads a corporate blog of the company, which has decided to integrate both products. “If Ring’s alarm fails, Astro will go immediately to investigate what has happened, while professional agents will use their cameras to see in real time what is happening.”

The directors of the technology company continue to see Astro as a strategic product for the future of the company. “Astro is our first robot, not our last robot,” Ken Washington, CEO of Amazon Consumer Robotics, said recently at a presentation of the company’s products and services. The founder and former CEO of the multinational, Jeff Bezos, was one of the promoters of the Astro project. He was clear that domestic robots will sooner or later prevail in homes and he wanted his company to pave the way and be prepared for when public opinion begins to consider androids as just another consumer object.

In his presentation, now a year ago, the qualities of this little device with three wheels and the size of a bowling ball were outlined. It has an artificial vision system that allows you to know where you are and monitor the different rooms thanks to its cameras. It can play music, follow the user around the house while showing a video call on its screen, make an emergency call in case of need and listen to spoken instructions, just like the Alexa voice assistant. You can also carry beers from one side to the other, a feature promoted by the company itself and that has caused ridicule on social networks, since it can transport them, but it has no way of holding them.

It went on sale for $999 (about 1,014 euros at current exchange rates) and now costs $1,450 (about 1,470 euros). It can only be purchased by invitation. “The criteria for issuing the invitations is that, at this stage, we are looking for customers who can help shape the experience and provide feedback on the features available,” company sources explain, declining to comment on whether there are plans to sell the product. product in Spain.

Some users believe that the design and operation of Astro can be improved. There are times when he is unable to locate his charging station, which he goes to on his own when his battery is low; it gets stuck when approaching stairs and its handling through the app is sometimes slow, according to Bloomberg reports.

Astro, Amazon’s home robot, can check for improperly closed doors or windows.

omniscient presence at home

Amazon sees its robot as one more element in its way of understanding home automation: they want to be able to anticipate the needs of users. “Today you have to ask for things,” Washington said in the corporate presentation. “But a lot of those requests are starting to fade because artificial intelligence is getting good enough to predict what we want,” he added.

Astro also fits into the puzzle that Amazon is putting together to have the most complete knowledge possible of what happens in homes. The rollout of chips began with the launch of the Echo speakers, where the Alexa voice assistant is housed. Those are the ears of Amazon at home: the built-in microphone is always on to detect the activation order. It is able to distinguish snoring and coughing, which provides information on health, and to detect the presence of people by ultrasound.

Other consumer devices, such as Kindle e-books, Fire TV and Omni TV connected television devices, in addition to its Prime streaming platform, provide data on the user’s tastes, political interests or the frequency and speed at which they read. The company also markets, among others, smart lights that are activated through Alexa, which provides data on energy consumption and daily habits, and Halo, a smart bracelet with several sensors and a microphone that monitors magnitudes such as activity and movement, frequency heart rate, weight, sleep patterns, estimates of weight and food intake or tone of voice. Two out of three Americans who shop at Amazon have at least one of its smart devices, according to consultancy Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

With the acquisition of Ring in 2018, available in the Spanish market, the technology company acquired its video door entry systems and associated cameras, its eyes to see who enters the house and what happens inside. According to Politico, Amazon has handed over images of its smart doorbells to police without the consent of their owners at least 11 times so far this year. From the company they assure that this type of agreements is part of the past.

This summer, Amazon announced an agreement to take over iRobot, the company that makes Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners, which among other things will provide it with digitized maps of homes that these devices trace every time they go out to clean.

The Astro robot complements Echo and Ring, but adds dynamism: the cameras and speakers can be moved around the house, either on scheduled or remotely controlled tours. It has not yet managed to become an everyday object, as Roomba vacuum cleaners are.

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