Robots are here, but they still can’t do much

Amazon’s Astro Home Robot


Electronics companies have been parading around flashy, futuristic prototypes of consumer robots for years. They have pointed to a not-too-distant future where people will have roaming robot helpers around their homes who can do the dishes or even act as a personal masseuse† So far, few of those predictions have come true, and they largely remain science fiction.

last week, om Amazon‘s re:MARS technology conference in Las Vegas, the e-commerce giant and other tech companies in attendance showcased the latest in robotics.

I noticed there were no bold marketing proclamations of: “robot butlers” or “AI dogs” as I walked the trading floor. The robots were designed to look more practical, and many of the devices could only perform a few simple tasks.

Take Amazon’s Astro robot, for example. The company last September revealed the long-trumped-up home robot, which costs $1,000 for invite-only shoppers. It will cost $1,500 once it launches to everyone on an unannounced date. At re: MARS, Astro greeted visitors to a fake smart home that had been tricked with a plethora of internet-connected devices.

With a length of about 60 cm, Astro resembles a tablet on wheels. It can follow you around the house and play music, or carry drinks in a cup holder built into the device. Astro has a camera on top of a periscope that can rise to eye level so he can keep an eye on your house while you’re gone. It can dance to disco in your kitchen.

Aside from these features, Astro’s most basic features don’t differ much from other cheaper Amazon devices with its Alexa digital assistant. It can send reminders, set alarms, make a video call, or play a YouTube video, similar to an Echo Show smart display.

And while Astro is billed as a housekeeping robot, he can’t follow you to every room, as he’s unable to go up or down stairs. It also has no hands, so it cannot pick up items.

“The technology for safely going up and down stairs at the price of consumer robots is beyond the state of the art,” Ken Washington, Amazon’s vice president of software engineering for consumer robotics, told reporters last week. “So it’s something we’re looking at. Can we do that at a lower cost? Are there technologies that can help us solve that problem cheaply, safely and reliably? Today it’s not state of the art, but it doesn’t ‘ It doesn’t mean it won’t be for one day.”

In an interview, Washington made it clear that this is not the final version of Astro, nor is it the last robot from Amazon. Amazon is also considering opening Astro to third-party developers and allowing them to build new skills, Washington said joined Amazon last June after serving as Ford’s Chief Technology Officer.

This can potentially speed up the process of making Astro smarter and more useful.

“We know that part of the scaling algorithm has to involve others, just like we did with Alexa,” Washington said. “That’s something we think very hard about.”

Astro’s home security, entertainment and remote care tools for caring for elderly relatives are popular features among early adopters. Amazon was most surprised to find that users want more features that allow Astro to interact with their pets.

“One customer tried to register his cat visual ID [Astro’s facial recognition feature]which didn’t work,” Washington said. “Now we’re wondering, should we enroll cats in visual ID?”

Amazon knows a thing or two about robots. The company launched Amazon Roboticsthe team focused on automating aspects of its warehouse operations, a decade ago when it acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million.

In the years since, it has moved beyond industrial robotics and started a consumer robotics division within Lab126, the secretive hardware unit.

The division has grown, and opened last month a new consumer robotics center in Bangalore, India, where Washington said Amazon plans to hire dozens of software engineers to work on Astro. Amazon has tested Astro in real and fake homes in Chennai, a city on India’s east coast, he added.

The Astro team is working on making it more natural for users to have a conversation with the device, which mainly communicates with beeps and a few circles on the screen that should resemble eyes.

“Today, interacting with Astro is very transactional,” Washington said. “When you’re talking to your partner, or your husband, or your kids, or your boyfriend, don’t say, ‘Bob, what’s the weather?’ You just don’t talk like that. So we’re thinking about ways to make it more natural to engage in a dialogue with Astro.”

embodiedan AI startup backed by the Alexa Fund, Amazon’s venture capital arm, is also trying to make talking to robots more natural, but it may be easier to do given its target customer.

It has been selling Moxie, a stocky, friendly AI robot “companion” since 2020. Speaking on re: MARS, Caitlyn Clabaugh, a robotics learning scientist at Embodied, said that Moxie is intended for children between the ages of five and 10 and is designed to help them learn social and emotional skills.

“There’s a huge market for robotic companionship and kids are so adaptable to new technology,” Clabaugh said, adding that Embodied was surprised at how natural children have become to talk to the robot.

Moxie costs $1,000 and can’t move. But he can make gestures by moving his arms. Built into Moxie’s head is an LCD screen, which is lit by an internal projector that gives the device an expressive, cartoon-like face.

More robots are coming to the workplace

Another robot featured at re:MARS was the Labrador Retriever, a cube-shaped device on wheels that looks more like a coffee table than Rosey from The Jetsons. It has no human-like features, such as mechanical arms or legs, but it can take objects into the house.

The Labrador Retriever goes up and down using an accordion-like system, while an automatic retrieval function allows it to pick up trays of items that are on a flat, open surface, such as a counter or table.

Labrador Systems has developed a robot designed to help people with chronic diseases by lifting and transporting heavy objects around the home.

Labrador Systems

Labrador Systems, which is supported by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and co-founded by Mike Dooley, a former vice president at Roomba maker iRobot, developed the device to help people with chronic illness or illnesses that can affect their range of motion. The Labrador Retriever can make household chores easier by carrying laundry or other heavy objects, and he can deliver meals.

Labrador Systems is also testing the device in retirement homes, which Dooley said in an interview is “appropriate timing” given the nationwide labor shortage. Dooley was adamant that the robot isn’t meant to replace workers, but is designed to relieve them of some tedious tasks, giving them more time to interact with residents.

In Amazon warehouses, more and more machines work together with people. The company last week introduced two new devices, Proteus and Cardinal, that will join the roughly 520,000 robots already in its fulfillment and sorting centers.

Amazon says Proteus is its “first fully autonomous mobile robot”. Traditionally, Amazon has deposited its industrial robots in restricted areas of its warehouses where they cannot encounter workers. With Proteus, Amazon said it believes it can safely build robots into the same physical space as humans.

Proteus and Cardinal, a robotic arm, aims to reduce some of the most strenuous tasks of warehouse workers, such as moving heavy objects and repetitive twists and turns. This is especially critical for Amazon, which has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism over its labor record and employee injuries.

Amazon warehouse workers in the US past according to a recent study by a coalition of unions, based on data submitted to federal safety regulators.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy pushed back on this data and defended the company’s security record. Amazon has also pledged to make safety and employee satisfaction a higher priority within the company, swearing to be “the best employer on earth”.

Tye Brady, head of Amazon Robotics, said last week that automation is an important part of increasing security, although that prospect has been debated. An investigation by the unveiling of the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Amazon’s warehouses with robots have higher injury rates than facilities without automation.

On stage at re:MARS, Brady described how Amazon uses robots to prepare packages for shipment, but he claimed the job couldn’t be done without humans.

“It’s a symphony of humans and machines working together to do this,” Brady said. “We value safety to do that job, but you can’t do one without the other. We couldn’t achieve what we did during the pandemic without the right mix of automation and our amazing frontline employees.”

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