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Amazon’s robot Astro is stupid, but you’ll love it anyway

At the end of September, Amazon presented a new product of a special kind: Astro is supposed to be a so-called household robot. The e-commerce giant’s introductory video promises that the $ 999 robot, which comes with two wheels and a rectangular screen – showing two spheres for eyes – should be able to do things like that Supervising a household or holding impromptu dance parties.

Since the manufacturer is the Amazon data vacuum cleaner, there are good reasons to be skeptical – especially since Astro is basically a giant camera on wheels that observes everything you do. So why should anyone be happy to have something like this in their house? It’s very simple: the reason is in the way our brains are wired. Years of research into robotics and previous versions of robot assistants and pets (or so-called robopets) have shown that people inevitably fall in love with them.

And owners can be very fond of their robotic animals. In an overview study carried out in 2019 Scientists found that robotic animals – including Paro, the robotic seal, Justocat, the robotic cat, Aibo the robotic dog, and Cuddler, a robotic bear – similar to real pets, reduced depression and improved the wellbeing of the elderly. They loved to pet the robot animals, even though they were well aware that they weren’t real animals. As one user said, “I know it’s an inanimate object, but I can’t help but love it.”

And that doesn’t just apply to robopets. Studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that Roomba – a self-propelled, disc-shaped vacuum cleaner – is often considered “part of the family” and is even more often assigned a gender and name. When the servers that powered Jibo, one of the first “social robots”, were shut down, people mourned. Sony’s robot dog Aibo was actually reasonably useless – and yet people held funerals for it when their devices finally collapsed and Sony discontinued the line.

Why are we doing this It all starts with trust, says Mark Edmonds of UCLA in California. He studied at the university why humans trust robots, and he says that amazingly, by default, we tend to trust machines to do what they are programmed to do. Correspondingly, for the designers, this means that their machines have to maintain trust instead of building it.

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At Astro, trust goes in two directions. On the superficial level, there is confidence that Astro will follow commands efficiently and as requested. The deeper trust problem Amazon is facing is the company’s – to say the least volatile – history of surveillance and privacy, largely because Astro is primarily used for home surveillance, of all things. But Edmonds says that some users might be willing to be less critical of this trust problem if Astro just does what they’re told. “Astro has to get the functionality right first before it gets ‘intimate’,” says Edmonds. “This functionality is the more difficult technical dimension.”

Getting people to trust Astro may seem difficult, but Amazon built in a few key design elements to help them do this – starting with its “eyes.” It is difficult to call Astro really cute – his “face” is actually just a screen with the two circles on it – but the circles are reminiscent of the enlarged eyes of a child or a baby animal.

Robopets have long been designed with huge eyes and pouting features to make them “lovable” to the human brain. In the early 2000s, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle began studying children who interacted with the then popular furbies. She found that while the children knew they were only toys, they still developed a deep bond with them, in large part due to their looks.

In a follow-up research from 2020, Turkle writes that the eyes of the therapy robot Paro make people feel understood and “stimulate a relationship … not because of its intelligence or a consciousness, but because of its ability to be certain ‘Darwinian ‘Pushing buttons in man’. This includes making eye contact and getting people to react as if they were in a relationship.

Children may be especially prone to feeling that Astro has the ability to relate to them. Judith Danovitch, assistant professor at the University of Louisville who studies how children interact with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa, says Astro’s size, eyes, and cute looks are clear “clues to personality” that could both fascinate and confuse children – especially younger children who have yet to figure out how to interact with other people. “Moving yourself around is an indication of liveliness in babies,” says Danovitch. “In the natural world, humans and animals move on their own. Rocks and other inanimate objects are not. It will be a challenge for young children to understand the device.”

Astro has a secret weapon to seduce us: it is not very advanced yet. Vice magazine got its hands on leaked documentssuggesting the robot isn’t quite as nifty as the introductory video suggests (Amazon denies that). At the moment he can monitor the apartment with his built-in camera, play music or make video calls. He can recognize which room he is in and distinguish the residents using facial recognition.

That’s pretty much it right now. But that’s not necessarily a negative. Astro’s relatively limited functionality could be key to integrating it into our families. Research has shown that people can easily lose confidence in robots that cannot perform their basic functions. “Trust is broken when machines are irrational or do something we don’t expect them to do,” says Edmonds. The fact that Astro can’t do much could limit its chances of making mistakes (and thereby terrifying us).

“Ease of use is often a bigger indicator of home robot adoption than its explicit use,” says Heather Knight, assistant professor of computer science at Oregon State University, whose research focuses on human-robot interaction.

Amazon undoubtedly sees Astro as a future member of the family. “In our tests, we were very impressed with the number of people who said that Astro’s personality makes them feel like part of their family – and that they would miss the device in their home when it was gone” , said Kristy Schmidt, Amazon spokeswoman, in an email. And for the kids to like Astro, it’s built into the design: Schmidt said Amazon Kids, the Alexa service that kids can interact with and play games on the company’s smart speakers, can be used with Astro.

As robots become more and more integrated into our lives, the mixing of business and personal could lead to a delicate conflict of interest. When you develop a relationship with your robot, what about the ethics of trying to sell you something from its maker?

This could be particularly problematic for children. “My guess is that they’ll be confused when Amazon tries to share advertisements over and over [Astro] to convey a compelling message, “says Danovitch. That could create a barrage of ethical problems. And with all that said, it’s likely that many of us will welcome a future version of Astro into our homes. We’re falling for the cute gadgets – because we are human and so programmed.


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