So Amazon has a new robot — a sly little cyber-pet called “Astro” who is supposed to be a goofy domestic helper reminiscent of R2D2 but is, in reality, both a privacy nightmare and a dysfunctional mess.
The $US1,000 ($1,383) bot that Amazon announced today is supposed to be a “domestic assistant” — basically an Alexa on wheels, with a security component — and is, on the outside, what some consider to be adorable. On the inside, however, Astro’s a cold, hard bundle of wires and gears devoted mostly to scooping up and analysing as much of your personal information as possible, according to Motherboard, which recently talked to sources and viewed documents connected to the project.
How it works: When the robot first enters the home, users must “enroll” the faces and voices of any person who is likely to be inside the residence, so that the metal critter knows who is supposed to be there and who isn’t, the outlet reports. Kristy Schmidt, senior PR manager for devices and services at Amazon, further told Motherboard that the device collects an immense amount of data on a home and its inhabitants in order to understand how to interact within it. Astro was designed to “handle a lot of the data processing on the device, including the images and raw sensor data it processes as it moves around your home,” Schmidt said. “This helps Astro respond quickly to its environment. In addition, your visual ID is stored on the device, and Astro uses on-device processing to recognise you.”
Leaked documents show that much of that data is being collected to help serve the robot’s “security” function. Referred to internally within Amazon as “Vesta” (the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth), the robot can apparently be put into “Sentry” mode, which enables it to patrol the home for people or events that it doesn’t recognise. When it meets someone whose face it hasn’t yet stored in its database, it proceeds to stalk them around the house, collecting and storing data on them, until told to stop. Fun!
“Sentry is required to investigate any unrecognised person detected by it or Audio Event in certain set of conditions are met,” a document states. “Sentry should first try to identify the person if they are not still unrecognised for as long as 30s [seconds]. When the person is identified as unknown or 30 seconds passed, Sentry should start following the person until Sentry Mode is turned off.”
The robot can also be paired with an app that allows the homeowner to livestream video from within the residence while they aren’t there, Motherboard reports.
“Vesta slowly and intelligently patrols the home when unfamiliar person are around, moving from scan point to scan point (the best location and pose in any given space to look around) looking and listening for unusual activity,” another leaked document states. “Vesta moves to a predetermined scan point and pose to scan any given room, looking past and over obstacles in its way. Vesta completes one complete patrol when it completes scanning all the scan point on the floorplan.”
The robot is also built to be paired with Amazon Ring, the company’s odious home security apparatus that doubles as an informal surveillance network for police departments across the country. After pairing, Astro would ostensibly respond to events connected to Ring, patrolling the house if an alarm went off.
But, on top of all the invasive potential of the product, Astro may just not work very well yet. Multiple sources who worked on previous iterations of the robot have said that its functionality was very limited.
“Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity. The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable,” one anonymous developer told Motherboard. “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.”
All of this makes buying the bot sound like both a creepy and useless exercise, a little like strapping motorised wheels to a bulky camcorder and letting it awkwardly roll around your home. The thing can’t even vacuum.