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Amazon launches home-patrolling robot Astro

Amazon has unveiled an autonomous robot designed to patrol the home, part of a suite of new technology products that could alarm digital privacy advocates.

The almost knee-high robot, named Astro, was described by the tech group’s device chief Dave Limp as a “beautiful illustration” of advancements in artificial intelligence.

The robot can be sent to specific locations in the home, with a periscope camera rising from the top of the device that can film up to eye height, and follow users around as they conduct video calls.

“We had to leverage AI in so many new ways, including using deep neural learning to map anchor points throughout the home, and building new dynamic [simultaneous localisation and mapping] algorithms that are constantly refreshing,” Limp said.

The Astro, which has been in development for the past four years, will cost $999 and ship to a limited number of customers later this year, Limp said. During a streamed event on Tuesday morning, he demonstrated Astro on stage by asking it to beatbox.

A touch screen on the front of Astro displays two large cartoon eyes as a means of making it look more approachable, its engineers said in a promotional video. “In five to 10 years we believe every home will have at least one robot that will become a core part of your everyday life,” Limp said.

Ben Wood of CCS Insight, a tech research group, said: “As with other Amazon products, there is no question the Astro robot will become a lightning conductor in the privacy debate. But ultimately it is up to consumers to decide whether they want this type of technology in their homes. This product will be the litmus test for convenience versus privacy.”

Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group, said consumers would be hesitant to invite an Amazon-made robot into the home.

“If somebody has always wanted an iPad on wheels that can roll around your house, this device might be of interest to them. But I think consumers are really aware of the privacy risks, more now than they were a few years ago,” he said.

Amazon said the Astro had built-in privacy features, such as “out of bounds” zones where the robot is not permitted to go, as well as a “do not disturb” mode limiting how much the robot moves at certain times.

Astro will integrate with Amazon’s Ring home security system, which also includes an indoor drone that can fly around the home that was first announced last year but has yet to be widely released.

As part of updates to the Ring system also announced on Tuesday, Amazon said it would launch a $99 a month “virtual security guard” service that would enable a remote worker to access a customer’s live feed from the home to assess any danger, such as an intruder.

The company tried to fend off what is likely to be an onslaught of privacy concerns arising from its updates, which also included a small video chat device aimed at children and a wall-mounted version of its Echo device whose display can change based on the person looking at it.

As well as stressing that such features could be disabled, Amazon said its custom-built computer chip, the AZ1, would make it possible for spoken instructions to be processed on the device, rather than needing to be sent to a server.

The company has faced sharp criticism over its privacy practices in the past when it was reported that staff had been listening to snippets of recordings in order to improve the technology underpinning it.

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