Amazon introduced a new robot today with the face of an Echo Show, the sensor-laden body of Panera Bread delivery bot, and a pair of cupholders for a trunk. The instant it was announced, people clamored for a reason for its existence beyond “mobile camera with a cute face” and “potentially invasive surveillance drone.” Most seemed to settle on “beer fetcher.”
But friend, a pair of cupholders does not a robowaiter make.
While the $1,000 Astro could very well have a wide variety of capabilities beyond home surveillance, it’s not gonna be fetching you anything. For one, it reportedly sucks. “Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity,” a source who claimed to work on the project told Vice. Another source told Vice “it’s a disaster that’s not ready for release.” A robot more prone to tossing itself into the void than performing expected functions is not gonna be grabbing that Heineken from the fridge.
It’s also unclear how well it can see anything. Google and Snapchat have both heavily invested in creating a way for computers to interpret the real world without guideposts like bar codes. Amazon has not. It might be the maker of Rekognition, a controversial facial recognition service, but its Ring ecosystem only got the ability to recognize packages… today. How long would it take Astro to recognize a beer? And what happens when that beer recognition technology fails? You could find yourself with a refreshing bottle of ranch dressing instead.
But the biggest problem isn’t the reports that it sucks, or the failure to prove it can distinguish between the various contents of your fridge. The real problem is the robot has no arms!
There is no way for it to open a fridge, freezer, or even a Yeti cooler. It can’t even open a door. It certainly cannot reach into a crowded fridge and pull out a cold one. I fear people assume it’s got some Doc Ock arms tucked away behind its face or are hoping those two cupholders rise out of the robot to open the fridge via suction. They’ve seen the cupholders and assumed there is a way to get things into them that don’t involve someone in the other room helping out.
But there isn’t. Currently, there appear to be no plans to build it a pair of grabbers — or even a single appendage. The payload area the cupholders occupy does have a USB-C port, though! Theoretically, someone could build an arm. That arm could replace the cupholders.
But that arm does not yet exist. Unless you want to be shouting to housemates to stick a beer in your bot, the Astro will not be fetching you any kind of beverage.