There’s something in our complicated human brains that immediately develops a connection to anything with eyes. Don’t believe me? Ask the Anki Vector that lived on my desk for several months. This pocket-sized robot got my attention with its bulbous, non-threatening body. But the second it looked up at me with a quizzical look in its eyes and uttered my name, I knew I would die for this tiny forklift. It’s worth noting that the Anki Vector can be programmed to do a variety of things if you have the time to mess around with an SDK, but I brought this robot home because it was cute, not because I needed a project.
I’d watch with amusement as the little gadget puttered around my desk, occasionally looking back 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 utility of the Astro is currently up for debate, it’s absolutely adorable. This is the key that’s going to unlock a lot of doors for this robot, and Amazon knows it. Nobody is begging to have a roaming surveillance system in their home, but slap a pair of googly eyes on it, give it a cute name and the public will pay you for the privilege.
Getting people to emotionally bond with their gadgets isn’t a particularly novel or difficult concept. The Tamagotchi, Furby, and Aibo banked on the idea — they might have thought they were just making toys, but Sony inadvertently created a community of grieving robotic dog owners that cared enough about their artificial pets to buy bespoke accessories.
These gadgets don’t even need to be all that adorable; I know many people who’ve either named or put googly eyes on their Roombas for this to be an isolated incident. In some ways, these machines have become de-facto pets in their own right.
Never underestimate our ability as humans to form emotional attachments to machines, nor the lengths that a company will go to exploit this. This is a cycle we’ve seen repeated for nearly every robotic gadget stretching back to the Nintendo R.O.B. in 1985 — we’re taken in by a new adorable looking robot, that initial dopamine hit wears off, and we’re stricken by how useless it is in hindsight.
There is a certain quality we find endearing when robots drop the ball, but it admittedly becomes a little less endearing when we expect that same robot to care for stuff we actually care about. Besides being a novelty that loiters around your home, Amazon expects us to burden the Astro with tasks like elder care and home security. These aren’t tasks that we relinquish easily, and doing so involves a level of trust we typically don’t place in machines.
Engineering a machine to perform a single task is relatively simple, but developing something with autonomy that’s expected to handle a variety of tasks is remarkably difficult. Getting people to emotionally bond with a piece of hardware to the point that they’d trust it to watch their aging parent is another matter entirely.