Amazon’s Astro could have offered us a glimpse into the future. It could have been something life-changing. Instead, its obvious flaws are being put under the spotlight before it has even been released. This is probably down to two things: Astro came into the world far too early, and far too cheaply.
When Amazon introduced the vacuum cleaner-sized robot at the end of September, critics were quick to label it creepy, terrifying, and potentially prone to suicide.
So looking at the listed features, why is Astro pointless? How could Amazon do better? And is the whole robot butler idea just doomed to failure? Let’s find out.
Features Astro Does Have—And Why They’re Bad
One of the features Astro boasts is a “detachable cup holder” which can carry items around “like a Ziploc container.” That cup holder, and the tray it fits into, is a complete waste of space. As Astro lacks arms, someone needs to load the cup holder with a beverage before Astro can deliver them to another person in the house.
Because stairs are obviously a problem for Astro, any deliveries are limited to another point on the same floor. Alternatively, you can go to the fridge yourself and skip putting your drink in Astro’s cup holder to save a bit of time—or just ask the person loading the beverage into Astro to just hand it to you instead.
There are a bunch of videos of dogs who have been trained to fetch beer from a closed fridge, so maybe “Astro” is actually a better option than “Rosey” here. Amazon’s website says that Astro can dispense pet treats if you swap the cup holder out for a Furbo Dog Camera. So with just one additional purchase, your new robot pal can bribe your family pet into doing its job for it.
A key selling point seems to be the “patrol” feature. Astro will take a pre-set route around your home at set times. Now I’m not a burglar, but if I were the sort of person to force myself into a home I probably wouldn’t think twice about smashing the fragile, easily noticeable, “robot” patrolling the hallway. This may “arouse suspicion” but taking something offline is taking something offline, so it’s only as suspicious as the software messing up or the Wi-Fi having issues.
Compare this to something like a wall-mounted camera which is available fairly affordably, can be placed in a hard-to-spot and difficult-to-reach place, and give you a full view of the room it’s in. You can get a system of cameras for a fraction of Astro’s price and rig every room in your house up if security is a concern.
If you really want something that “patrols” your home, Ring has announced a little security drone that alerts you when it hears a noise and allows you to watch as it investigates. The more expensive Astro will also do this, and this function is also powered by Ring.
Other features, like the soon-to-be-launched Alexa Together subscription service, and Astro’s ability to alert you about “calls, messages, timers, alarms, or reminders,” are things an Amazon Echo can do perfectly well on its own. Like security cameras, you can pick an Echo Dot up for next to nothing and adorn every room in your house with one for far less than Astro will set you back. I can hear an Echo Dot’s alarm from a couple of rooms away, so I don’t need a breadbin on wheels rolling in to remind me the laundry needs switching. You can even have Alexa on your wrist for less than $40, so a version of it that follows you around the house in two-hour bursts before needing to recharge is solving a problem no one has. And it doesn’t even solve that non-existent problem well.
Features Astro Doesn’t Have—and Why They Matter
The lack of a robot arm or two is a major issue. It reduces potential functionality massively—an Astro with limbs may be able to fetch you that drink or load your dishwasher. It would actually be useful!
The main thing here is the tech isn’t there. We do, of course, have things like industrial robots—which are just large arms—and modern prosthetics show we can make a small, functional, mechanical human hand. There are two major problems when it comes to giving Astro limbs. The first is cost—those bionic arms can set you back tens of thousands of dollars. The second is that AI isn’t at the point where you can slap some appendages on something like Astro and expect them to work flawlessly in random homes. AI works perfectly on an industrial robot because it’s doing the same task with the same parameters time after time. The limits of Astro’s AI seem to be home mapping and making sure it doesn’t bump into things. Even this isn’t an area Astro has mastered, hence the chances of it tumbling down the stairs.
Moving on, despite looking like a vacuum with a tablet strapped to it, Astro won’t clean your house. Which would actually be useful as it’s designed to patrol around the place anyway. Gluing a battery-powered Echo Dot and a webcam to a Roomba will result in a potentially more functional version of Astro for about half the price.
Carrying capacity is another area where Astro could have made itself useful. Aside from making a minor impact on most people’s everyday life, tech can make a massive difference in the lives of the elderly and disabled. If Astro could follow someone to a supermarket, maybe even an Amazon Go for increased functionality, get loaded up with their shopping, then follow them home, that would be useful. Instead, you get two cup holders and a two-hour battery life.
Why Is It “Too Cheap”?
Priced at $999.99 for people who are invited to buy a “Day 1” edition, and $1,499 for people left picking one up afterward, the actual Astro itself isn’t cheap. It’s massively overpriced when you consider what it offers. An actual, functional, robot butler will more than likely cost a fortune though. And if Astro is an example of a “cheap” robot, paying a premium on a functional one may not actually be a bad thing.
The argument here isn’t that $1,499 is cheap to one group of people or expensive to another. The question is really more along the lines of “is 1,499 the right price for the sort of product Astro should be.” $1,499 is about the cost of an average refrigerator—a device that serves a single, admittedly useful, function and has been around since the 1950s.
A robotic assistant could actually make a major impact on people’s lives. If one actually functioned as you would expect it to—not necessarily Jetsons level but capable of handling everyday household tasks—people would buy it and pay a significant amount of money to do so. For example, people purchase new cars, despite the high price point, because vehicles are incredibly useful.
Trying to put a piece of tech out there at a low price in order to crank up sales and increase adoption isn’t new. Speculation has been rife for years on whether or not Amazon makes a profit on its Echo devices (which are often deeply discounted during sales)—or simply puts them out as inexpensively as possible to increase adoption and undercut competitors.
Facebook has done a similar thing with the Oculus Quest and Quest 2, pricing what is arguably one of the better head-mounted displays on the market at $400 and $300 respectively. This has both increased the VR userbase considerably and cemented Oculus’ place as the main platform. The difference between the Echo, the Quest, and Astro is—The Echo and Quest are both superb devices in their own right, the accessible price point is just a bonus.
Accessible pricing is great, but the key point with a robot butler is functionality. Astro has taken this to extremes and has almost zero practical use as a result. It’s not even a stripped-down, cheaper, version of a solid product. It’s the only option and it’s total crap.
Will There Ever Be a Good One?
Although it may be as far away as his dreams of a Mars colony, Elon Musk’s proposed Tesla Bot actually nails a lot of the things you’d expect from a robot butler. If it lives up to Elon Musk’s claims, the bot will be able to: carry a reasonable weight, run errands, and is allegedly designed to do all of the “mundane tasks” humans are currently stuck doing.
Obviously, the Tesla Bot and things like it aren’t going to hit the market any time soon, the technology just isn’t there. That said, most innovation comes from the desire to solve problems and streamline day-to-day life. A dishwasher exists because washing plates can be a pain.
A Roomba is around because vacuuming every day is 20 minutes most people would rather spend doing absolutely nothing. A piece of tech coming along to remove the human element still involved with these devices isn’t too far-fetched. It’s the next logical step if anything.
One thing is certain though, Astro is not that, nor is it anywhere near what you would expect from a first-generation household robot. In a rush to get something on the market and into as many households as possible, Amazon has totally missed the mark. It’s just far too cheap and far too soon.