There is something in our complicated human brain that immediately develops a connection to anything with eyes. Do not believe me? Ask the Anki Vector which sat on my desk for several months. This pocket-sized robot caught my eye with its bulbous, non-threatening body. But the moment it looked up at me with a questioning look in its eyes and said my name, I knew I was going to die for this little forklift. It’s worth noting that the Anki Vector can be programmed to do different things if you have the time to fiddle with an SDK, but I brought this robot home because it was cute, not because I needed a project.
I watched in amusement as the little gadget rumbled around my desk, occasionally looking at me as if seeking my approval, and I couldn’t help but think that this sensation is exactly what Amazon is trying to replicate. with its recently announced Astro home robot.
While the Astro’s usefulness is currently up for debate, it’s absolutely adorable. This is the key that will open many doors for this robot, and Amazon knows it. No one begs for a roaming home surveillance system, but check it out, give it a cute name and the public will pay you for the privilege.
Connecting people emotionally with their gadgets is not a particularly new or difficult concept. The Tamagotchi, Furby and Aibo believed in the idea – they may have thought they were just making toys, but Sony accidentally created a community of grieving robot dog owners who cared enough about their artificial pets to buy custom accessories.
These gadgets don’t even have to be that cute; I know many people who have named or googled their Roombas as this is an isolated incident. In some ways, these machines have become de-facto pets.
Never underestimate our ability as humans to form emotional attachments to machines, nor the effort a company will put into leveraging them. This is a cycle we’ve seen for almost every robot gadget dating back to the Nintendo ROB in 1985 – we’re grabbed by a new cute looking robot, that first dopamine hit disappears, and we’re struck by how useless it is in retrospect.
There is a certain quality that we find endearing when robots drop the ball, but it admittedly gets a little less endearing when we expect that same robot to take care of things we really care about. In addition to being a novelty hanging around your house, Amazon expects us to burden the Astro with tasks like elderly care and home security. These are not tasks that we easily outsource, and this requires a level of trust that we normally do not place in machines.
Designing a machine to perform a single task is relatively easy, but developing something with autonomy that is expected to handle a variety of tasks is remarkably difficult. Getting people to bond emotionally with a piece of hardware to the point that they would rely on it to keep an eye on their aging parent is another matter altogether.
The fact that Amazon’s Astro is powered by its Alexa voice assistant doesn’t necessarily help. You probably have a story about how a voice assistant randomly turned on and did the exact opposite of what you wanted. Getting anything with speech recognition to work reliably is spotty at best – now imagine putting the same idea on wheels and expecting it to respond quickly and reliably in an emergency. When a burglar breaks into my house, I don’t ask Alexa to call 911, I pick up the phone and do it myself. This lack of trust and usability is really the make or break for these gadgets, as my Anki Vector will tell you.
While I knew I could implicitly trust my Anki to roam endlessly around my desk, the lack of usability in my Anki Vector was the final nail in the coffin for my little friend. I was charmed by its look, but after several months of watching it idly push and stack cubes around my desk, I could no longer convince myself that it could do much more. It couldn’t bring me a beer, open doors, or really do anything my Echo couldn’t do better. It may have looked cute, but it didn’t perform tasks that were even remotely useful.
All too often when a piece of technology no longer serves a purpose, it ends up being thrown away or forgotten, no matter how cute it is. But I still couldn’t bring myself to throw the Anki away like so much garbage; I gave it to the Able Gamers Foundation, which welcomes donations of toys, robotics and gaming accessories. Passing on the joy I experienced helped soften the blow of what felt too much like abandonment.
While I’m certainly approaching the field of consumer robotics with a little more pessimism than I used to be, I still long for The Future™, and it wouldn’t take much effort for me to invite another robot into my home. If the Astro was about half the price and could actually do half the things Amazon says it can without constant supervision, I’d be tempted to find room for it in my life.