Amazon’s Astro represents the company’s first step toward a larger vision of in-home robotics as a mainstay for the modern home. Amazon has already seen a lot of success when it comes to smart home devices, and the acquisition of home security company Ring gave them an easy entry into that market. All that’s left to do is bring all of these systems together in more efficient and convenient ways.
Astro is being positioned by Amazon as a baby step toward that future, building what effectively is an Echo device on wheels running off of Alexa infrastructure that works hand-in-hand with Ring security systems. It even has a cupholder, which can be switched out for a standard tub container, and the company has further customization plans for those who dabble in Linux.
But the term “baby step” cannot be stressed enough when talking about what Astro can actually do. The name, which evokes the famous pup from The Jetsons, is pretty apt., is pretty apt. Astro basically acts as a robot dog with some extra bells and whistles, following family members to learn their daily routines and patterns in order to be a better companion. It will also follow those that it doesn’t recognize just in case there is some funny business afoot.
While that makes for a curiosity with some functionality, it’s hard to call Astro a valuable addition to the vision Amazon posits. And Amazon knows that. Astro’s lack of functionality when it comes to completing tasks around the house is severely limited due to the lack of robotic appendages, its limited mobility (climbing stairs isn’t in the cards) and its inability to physically interact with other smart home devices.
Amazon has said Astro isn’t the endgame, unsurprisingly. Hence why they are initially limiting the sale of Astro to those who register for an invitation to buy the Roomba with “eyes.” Those who do purchase it through an invite-only system will save $450 off it’s announced $1450 price when it’s made available to the general public at a later date.
It is easy to get excited about having a plucky robot bud that will follow you around when making video calls, but Astro’s cuteness comes with some additional concerns beyond the inability to turn off your Wi-Fi connected oven. Multiple security experts have voiced concerns about bringing a device like Astro that analyzes human behavior into your home.
“One of my big fears about this new wave of technology that [Amazon has] unleashed is that it will introduce more full-scale data harvesting,” Matthew Guariglia, Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst, told Cnet. Guarilgia points to the ability to control Astro through an app as a new frontier for data collection by Amazon.
Others, including F-Secure security consultant Tom Gaffney, say those concerns are heightened by already existing questions about how tech conglomerates use personal data. “The issue with any device that collects data and, in this instance, super-detailed data about your home and everyone who visits it, is where does the data go and who controls it,” Gaffney told Trusted Reviews.
“Organizations like Amazon and Google are deliberate in making it hard to understand what happens to data you share with them,” he added. “As the data collected by consumer robots is particularly granular, I would not be purchasing one. What it would take to change is a simple, clear commitment to data privacy and anonymization.”
Those qualms aren’t being expressed solely from figures outside Amazon. Multiple people who helped develop Astro raised similar concerns, including one source deeming it a “privacy nightmare,” according to a Motherboard report.
Amazon has stated that it addressed privacy concerns by having Astro process data internally rather than through the cloud, though Astro will still send “a portion of that data” to the cloud to accommodate communication between Astro and its companion app.
But further concerns come when looking at how Astro cooperates with Ring security devices. Amazon has come under scrutiny for signing contracts with law enforcement agencies that make surveilling public spaces much easier. Law enforcement agencies can issue subpoenas and warrants to Amazon in order to access data recorded on stationary Ring devices or publicly request such data indirectly from users through “Requests for Assistance” timeline posts in the Ring Neighbors app. Amazon’s own records show that law enforcement agencies filed 30,000 information requests in the first six months of 2021.
That path to circumvent individual privacy coupled with Astro’s video data collection practices and mobility means that it could become a mobile window into users’ homes, should law enforcement be able to issue warrants on Astro devices.
The future of robotic household aids is, in a word, rad, but there are severe potentials if the road to that reality isn’t guaranteed to better protect those who want to come along for the ride. Hopefully Astro is a step in the right direction—and not one towards an even more intrusive tech future.
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.