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Alexa on wheels. What is Amazon thinking?

Peter Griffin, Editor. 29 September 2021, 5:01 pm

Tech giant Amazon has rolled out a new generation of its Echo smart speakers, with a version of the Alexa-powered gadget arriving as Astro - a robot on wheels.

Astro is reminiscent of aged-care companion robots and hospital assistant bots already in common use in Japan. But Amazon is aiming to take the robotic assistant to the masses. The question is whether it is able to do any one task particularly well.

Astro can map out your house like many robotic vacuum cleaners do, giving it an area it can roam around, either as a result of your prompting or in response to sounds or sights it detects. Amazon is really talking up Astro's intelligence. Apparently, it can detect the sound of glass breaking and go towards the sound to investigate and will detect people it doesn't recognise. That gives it potential utility as a security device, with Astro connecting to its user's smartphone for remote access and alerts.

With Astro, you could deliver a small package weighing up to 2kg to someone else in the house or send the camera-equipped Astro to see what's going on in another room. There's even a periscope feature of the camera that raises it up to 42 inches so it can get a better point of view. Astro can also follow you around, tracking your movements as you make a video call.

Evoking the image of the cartoon character Wall-E, Astro has been designed to be an affable companion - its two eyes change expression in an effort to make an emotional connection with users. 

Astro has at its core the screen common to the Echo Show, which can display a music playlist, videos or weather updates. The robot started as a project of Amazon's Lab 126, a skunkworks within the e-commerce giant's research and development division tasked with pushing the limits with new product formats. 

Amazon has broken the mould before with new products, notably the Kindle e-book reader in 2007 and the Echo smart speaker in 2014. Both gadgets have proven popular in the New Zealand market. 

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Can Astro find appeal as an assistant robot?

A privacy nightmare?

Users can fence off Astro from entering certain rooms or areas of the home, which would prevent awkward incidents with family members. There's a physical button on Astro to turn off the mic and camera, though Amazon pointed out that Astro is immobilised when the button is pressed.

But there would appear to be ample scope for Astro to see and potentially things it isn't meant to as it wheels around the house or office. Amazon has had to work overtime to dispel the perception that its smart speakers are constantly listening in on users and sending their intimate conversations to the cloud. Astro will take privacy concerns to a whole new level.

Amazon says it is storing much of Astro's data on the device only, including the facial recognition records that will identify individual household members. Only one smartphone can be registered with Astro, lowering the possibility of it being accessed inappropriately from outside the house.

In terms of safety, Astro has technology designed to avoid it from toppling down your stairs or rolling into a swimming pool. How that works out in the real world clutter of people's houses is yet to be seen. The robot is fairly speedy, moving at up to one metre per second in any direction, swivelling through 360 degrees at its operator's behest. Astro will cost US$1,000 when it debuts in the US. No New Zealand availability has yet been announced.

Its unveiling came at the end of an event that saw more conventional Amazon products shown off, such as the Echo Show 15, a 15-inch version of the smart screen that can be mounted to a wall, and Echo Buds, a pair of wireless earbuds. Both will go on sale here next year.

It goes to show that Amazon has enough of a footprint in hardware to work on evolving its exiting products and throwing in some completely new ones to test the water. But whether Astro will be a loved part of the Amazon line-up in a couple of year's time is no sure thing, despite our fascination with robots. 


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