Washington says that the same approach to teaching Astro could be used to teach all kinds of furniture and objects in a home. The robot might be able to make sense of what people are doing. He says that artificial intelligence has reached an important point. It is easy to see that this is a chair and there is someone sitting in it. Users had asked for a feature that would allow Astro to identify cats and dogs and record videos of them.

Washington says the technology behind those new abilities is part of Amazon's "big vision" for the smart home. That's what Amazon executives callambient intelligence. Washington says that getting there depends on Amazon being able to understand many of the things that a person does in their home. A cute wheeled robot can be used to watch a household. Washington says that a mobile robot can be a smart glue. Light comes on when you walk into a room.

Washington doesn't directly answer if this could involve predicting what people might want or need to buy. He says that the robot should know if you have been adding things to a grocery list, and that it should be able to turn the lights off if you say goodnight to it. He says you need to ask for things today. The artificial intelligence is getting good enough that it is starting to predict what I might want.

Amazon's vision for a cute machine that watches your every move might be unnerving to some, especially given the company's detailed view into customers' lives. Washington says Astro uses its own hardware to do most of its computing and only sends a map of people's homes to Amazon's server. He said that they took a privacy by design approach.

Astro was in action last week at Lab 126. I was impressed by the robot's ability to navigate quickly through doorways and obstacles, as well as its subtle interface with blinking eyes and emotional sounds. Even a relatively limited home robot had to have some impressive technology. It's difficult to do reliably in a small and relatively low-cost consumer device, Astro gets its bearings using cameras, motion sensors, and some clever software that turns video footage into a map.

Given the limitations of the robot, the impression is of an intelligent pet. There were times when I asked Amazon executives if they could do anything else. Early Astro users like the robot, but want it to do more, according to Washington and others.

Astro will be kept on the market and upgraded until killer applications emerge.

It is possible that elder care is one of the possibilities. Washington says that an early user of Astro fell out of their wheelchair after logging in to the robot to check on an elderly parent. Washington says that in the future Astro could do a lot of helpful tasks automatically. He says that it would be possible to know when they took their medicine and if they needed help.