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Amazon’s new Astro robot is a ‘privacy nightmare’ that will ‘throw itself down stairs’, its own developers say

·4-min read

Amazon’s new robot Astro, an Alexa-enabled device with a screen for a ‘face’, that drives around a house is allegedly “terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs”, according to one developer who worked on the project.

The Astro robot includes all the traditional features of an Echo device – playing TV shows, displaying information, and making video calls – but is also designed to follow users and navigate around pets and other obstacles using front-facing cameras and machine learning.

"The goal is to make Vesta an ‘intelligent robot,’ and allow some simple but magical interactions with people," a social robotics document states.

The robot does this by mapping a user’s home, creating a heat map of points where the robot is likely to be stuck or hit by humans, such as hallways, doors, and kitchens. Amazon’s head of product, David Limp, said the robot was analogous to science fiction, and would be a foundation for even more developments in future.

However, one developer speaking to Motherboard have said that the robot is unwieldy and alleged that “the person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable”, adding that the "device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost” and recalling numerous issues such as broken masts – which are unable to be fixed because there is no way to ship it to Amazon.

“They’re also pushing it as an accessibility device but with the masts breaking and the possibility that at any given moment it’ll commit suicide on a flight of stairs, it’s, at best, absurdist nonsense and marketing and, at worst, potentially dangerous for anyone who’d actually rely on it for accessibility purposes”.

Another developer, concerned about privacy, allegedly said that it is “not ready for release," and that the robot is “a privacy nightmare that is an indictment of our society and how we trade privacy for convenience with devices like Vesta [Amazon’s internal codename for the robot]".

Astro is designed to integrate with Amazon’s Ring products, which have been criticised on numerous occasions for privacy concerns over Ring providing video to the police as well as having lacklustre security and vulnerabilities to hackers. Ring responded to the claims in a blog post, saying it “encourage[s] all Ring users to follow security best practices to ensure your Ring account stays secure”.

In January 2020, it was alleged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that Ring’s app was “packed with third-party trackers”, collecting names, private IP addresses, mobile network carriers, persistent identifiers of users.

“Like many companies, Ring uses third-party service providers to evaluate the use of our mobile app, which helps us improve features, optimize the customer experience, and evaluate the effectiveness of our marketing,” Ring said in response, adding that service providers use of the data is “contractually limited to appropriate purposes such as performing these services on our behalf and not for other purposes.”

The $999 Astro asks users to enroll their face and voice when it is first purchased and is “required to investigate any unrecognised person detected by it”, internal documents reported by Motherboard state.

“When the person is identified as unknown or [after 30 seconds has] passed, Sentry should start following the person until Sentry Mode is turned off. At any point of the investigation, if an enrolled person is detected and recognised, investigation should be ended”. Generally, the robot will record audio and video of the stranger, and then automatically upload it so that its owner can view it later, although this mode can be disabled.

Amazon said that it had consulted with academics over the computer vision capabilities of the robot and was “thoughtful in the design, testing, and augmentation of their approaches”.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson told The Independent: “These characterisations of Astro’s performance, mast, and safety systems are simply inaccurate. Astro went through rigorous testing on both quality and safety, including tens of thousands of hours of testing with beta participants.

“This includes comprehensive testing on Astro’s advanced safety system, which is designed to avoid objects, detect stairs, and stop the device where and when necessary.”

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