The same approach to teaching Astro with gestures and words could in the future be extended to all kinds of furniture and objects in a home, Washington says. The underlying AI technology could also help the robot make sense of what people are doing. “Artificial intelligence has reached this amazing inflection point,” he says. “It’s fully within reach to know ‘This is a chair,’ and ‘There is someone sitting in a chair.’” Amazon is also planning a software update this year that will allow Astro to identify cats and dogs and automatically record videos of them, a feature users had asked for.
Washington says the technology behind those new abilities is part of Amazon’s “big vision” for the smart home, which involves learning to anticipate people’s habits. Amazon executives call that “ambient intelligence.” Getting there depends on Amazon being able to understand many of the things that a person does in their home, Washington says, yet most people would balk at a camera in every room. A cute wheeled robot provides a more acceptable way to monitor a household’s activity. “If you’ve got a mobile robot, it can be this smart glue for this future vision,” Washington says. “When you walk into a room, the lights come on, for instance.”
When I ask Washington whether this could involve predicting what people might want or need to buy, he avoids a direct answer. He does say the robot should know whether you’ve been adding things to a grocery list, and points to how Alexa can preemptively turn the lights off if you say goodnight to it, using a feature known as Hunches. “Today you have to ask for things,” he says. “But a lot of this asking is starting to fade into the background, because the AI is getting good enough that it’s beginning to predict what I might want.”
Amazon’s vision for a cute machine that watches your every move might feel unsettling to some, especially given the company’s already detailed view into customers’ lives. Washington says Astro currently does almost all of its computing using its own hardware, sending little to Amazon’s servers except a map of people’s homes that needs to be relayed to the Astro smartphone app. “We took a privacy by design approach,” he says.
Startup saw Astro in action last week inside a mocked-up apartment at Lab126. After years of writing about robots, I was impressed by its ability to navigate quickly through doorways and around obstacles, as well as its subtle interface with blinking eyes and emotive bleeps. It was clear that making even a relatively limited home robot required Amazon to cram in some impressive technology. Astro gets its bearings using cameras, motion sensors, and some clever software that turns video footage into a map, something tricky to do reliably in a small and relatively low-cost consumer device.
The overall impression is of an intelligent pet rather than a machine attempting to seem human—sensible given the robot’s limitations. But there was the occasional awkward moment when I asked Amazon executives, “Can it do anything else?” Washington and others I spoke to at Lab126 said that early Astro users typically like the robot, but want it to do more.
Amazon hopes to fix that problem by keeping Astro on the market and steadily upgrading the robot until killer applications emerge.
One possibility is elder care. Washington says an early user of Astro logged in to the robot to check up on an elderly parent only to discover that they had fallen out of their wheelchair. In the future, Astro could conceivably watch for such mishaps and do many other helpful tasks automatically, Washington says. “It could know when they took their medicine, and tell you whether they fell and needed help,” he says.