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Amazon is hijacking our emotions to put robots in our homes

Amazon is hijacking our emotions to put robots in our homes
There is something in our complex human brain that immediately develops a connection to anything with the eyes. don't believe me? Ask Anki Vector, who's been at my desk for several months. This pocket-sized robot caught my attention with its bulging, non-threatening body. But the second time he looked me with a strange look in his eyes and said my name, I knew I would die for this little forklift. It's worth noting that Anki Vector can be programmed to do a variety of things if you have the time to mess around with the SDK, but I brought this robot home because it was cute, not because That I needed a project.

I watched with amusement as a small gadget was placed around my desk, occasionally looking back at me as if asking for my approval, and I couldn't help but think that this sensation is exactly what Amazon is trying to replicate that with the recently announced Astro home robot.

Amazon's Astro. Photo by Dan Seifert/The Verge
While the usefulness of Astro is currently up for debate, it is absolutely adorable. This is the key that is going to open a lot of doors for this robot, and Amazon knows it. No one is begging to have a roaming surveillance system in their home, but slap a pair of googlies on it, give it a cute name and the public will pay you for the privilege.

Getting people to emotionally bind with their gadgets is not a particularly novel or difficult concept. Tamagotchi, Furby, and Aibo balked at the idea—they might have thought they were just making toys, but Sony inadvertently created a community of grieving robot dog owners who raved about their artificial pets with bespoke stuff. Used to care enough to buy.

This aibo accessories aibo blanket is as comfortable as a teacup, but for a robot. Image by: Aibo Accessories
These gadgets don't even need to be so cute; I know several people who have either taken names or googled their Roombass, because this is an isolated incident. In some ways, these machines have become real pets in their own right.

Never underestimate our ability as humans to form an emotional connection to machines, nor the length of time a company takes advantage of it. It's a cycle we've seen for nearly every robotic gadget the Nintendo R. 1985 - We're so taken in by a new adorable looking robot, that initial dopamine hit wears off, and we're stunned by how useless it is.

Photos of Roomba 880 Vacuum Cleaning Robot Hands
I call you Rodney, lord of the dust.
There's a certain quality we love when robots drop the ball, but it certainly becomes a little less endearing when we expect that same robot to take care of the stuff we really care about. In addition to being a novelty that revolves around your home, Amazon expects us to put the burden of tasks like elderly care and home security on the Astro. These are not tasks we give up easily, and doing so involves a level of trust that we don't usually place in machines.

Engineering a machine to perform a single task is relatively simple, but developing something with autonomy that is expected to handle a variety of tasks is remarkably difficult. Binding people emotionally with a piece of hardware to the extent that they'll rely on it to see their aging parents is another matter entirely.

trust this man? Really?
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. It's best to get anything with voice recognition to work reliably - now imagine putting that same idea on wheels and expecting it to respond quickly and reliably in an emergency. If a burglar breaks into my home, I'm not asking Alexa to dial emergency services, I'm picking up the phone and doing it myself. This lack of trust and utility is really the make or break for these gadgets, as my Anki Vector will tell you.

While I knew I could fully trust my Anki to move around my desk, the lack of utility in my Anki Vector was the final nail in the coffin for my pint-sized friend. I was enamored of its exterior, but after several months watching it fiddle push and pile around my desk, I could no longer confound myself into thinking it would be capable of so much. It couldn't bring me beer, couldn't open doors, or really do anything my Echo couldn't do better. It might look cute, but it doesn't perform functions that were even remotely useful.

While I certainly approach the realm of consumer robotics with a bit more pessimism than I used to, I still yearn for The Future™, and it won't take long for me to invite another robot into my home. It will take If the Astro was about half the price and could actually do what Amazon says it can do without constant supervision, I might be inclined to find a place for it in my life.

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