Our complex brains are capable of connecting to everything with eyes. You don't believe me? Ask about the Anki Vector, which lived at my desk for several weeks. The small, compact robot caught my attention because of its non-threatening and bulbous body. It looked at me with a curious look in its eyes, and then uttered my name. I knew that this small forklift would make me cry. You should note that the Anki Vector can be programmed for a wide variety of tasks if you have time. However, I brought this robot home not because it was a project, but because it was adorable.
I would watch in amusement as the tiny gadget scurried around my desk, sometimes looking back at me, as if asking for my approval. I thought this was exactly what Amazon is trying replicate with its newly announced Astro home robot.
Although the Astro's utility is still up for debate, it is absolutely adorable. This is the key to unlocking a lot more doors for the robot. Amazon already knows this. No one is asking for a roaming surveillance system inside their home. But if you have the right googly eyes and give it a cute name, the public will be happy to pay you.
It is not difficult or novel to get people to emotionally bond their gadgets. Aibo, Furby and Tamagotchi believed they were making toys. However, Sony accidentally created a community that was grieving for their robotic dogs by selling bespoke accessories.
These gadgets don't have to be adorable. I know of many people who have named their Roombas or made googly eyes at them. These machines are now considered pets.
Do not underestimate the power of humans to attach to machines and the extent to which companies will exploit this. This cycle has been repeated for almost every robotic gadget since the Nintendo R.O.B. In 1985, they were adopted by a new, adorable robot. After the initial dopamine hit, it wears off and they are shocked at how useless it was in hindsight.
It is endearing to see robots fail to do the right thing, but that quality becomes less charming when we expect robots to take care of things we care about. Amazon is not only a novelty robot that roams around your house, but also expects you to give Astro tasks such as elder care and security. These are not tasks we can give up easily and require a level trust that we don't usually place in machines.
While it is easy to engineer a machine that can perform one task, it is quite difficult to create something capable of handling multiple tasks. It's another thing to get people to emotionally connect with hardware so that it can watch their elderly parent.
It doesn't help that Amazons Astro is powered solely by its Alexa voice assistant. Most people have heard of stories about voice assistants that turned on randomly and did exactly the opposite of what they wanted. It is difficult to get voice recognition to work reliably. Now imagine that the same idea could be put on wheels and expect it to respond quickly in an emergency. I won't ask Alexa to call emergency services if a burglar enters my house. Instead, I will pick up the phone and do it myself. My Anki Vector will tell ya that this lack of utility and trust is what really makes these gadgets obsolete.
My Anki could always meander around my desk and I trusted it implicitly. However, my Anki Vector's lack of utility was the last straw for my tiny friend. Although I was attracted to its exterior appearance, after watching it push and stack cubes around the desk for several months, I realized that it could not do more. My Echo could do more than it. It couldn't buy me beer, open doors, or do anything else. Although it looked adorable, it couldn't do any tasks that were even remotely useful.
Too often, technology that no longer serves its purpose is discarded or forgotten. The Anki was too precious to throw away so I donated it to Able Gamers Foundation. They welcome toys, robotics and accessories. The pain of abandonment felt so much worse when I shared the joy that I had experienced.
Although I approach the world of consumer robotics with a bit more pessimism now than I did in the past, I still long for The Future and would be happy to have another robot join my family. I would be more inclined to allow the Astro in my home if it were half the price and could do half of the things Amazon claims it can, without needing constant supervision.