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FUTURE IMPERFECT

Amazon’s Astro robot has at least one obvious purpose

Amazon Astro product shot
Courtesy Amazon
First gen.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published

When Amazon released Astro, its household robot, earlier this week, the press laughed it off. I didn’t.

“It’s an Echo Show on wheels,” they scoffed.

“It’s an Echo Show—on wheels,” I thought.

The different reactions come down to circumstances. I’m a Gen-Xer, deep into a stage of life in which I’m looking after my parents, checking in on them regularly with video calls. I use sensors plus an Echo Show device to try and keep my mother, who has dementia, from wandering into dangerous situations at night. She lives in a retirement home that, like most, does not have a robust night staff. I would gladly delegate this watchful-eye duty to a clunky-looking robot, one that could eventually be smart enough and friendly enough to lead my mother back to safety without me.

Astro doesn’t seem to be there yet. According to documents leaked to Vice, the product is not exactly ready for prime time even though early adopters can already pre-order the robot for $1,000.

But I could still see applications for the estimated 41 million people (pdf) in the US alone who, like me, are providing some form of caregiving to adults over the age of 50. Many of us are women juggling work with remote eldercare and relying on technology to connect and stay abreast of a loved one’s wellbeing. Even the ridiculous-looking periscope that shoots up from the Astro’s back would be useful for those who need extra eyes and ears inside the home of an older person prone to misusing appliances or losing things.

It may be true, as some have observed, that Amazon has the time and money to throw inventions at the wall to see what sticks. But I see more strategy than that in the company’s same-day debut of Astro and Alexa Together, an eldercare subscription service in the US that allows people to reach live operators for medical support as well as remote family members, through their Echo Shows. (Amazon referred to the eldercare possibilities in its marketing video for Astro, though it was not the main focus.)

Critics of the Amazon Astro are missing the bigger picture

Other critical reviews of the Astro have focused on Amazon’s slow creep into our private spaces with smart devices, or on the banal evilness of the mega-conglomerate behind the product. It’s true that even though Amazon doesn’t need press reviews to sell popular products, the press must continue to scrutinize Amazon’s plans for us and its operating practices, as CNET points out. This is the same firm that stands accused of treating its warehouse employees no better than its advanced robot workforce.

But I’m also wondering why other consumer tech companies aren’t releasing more forward-looking products in the senior care space by now. The demographic shift that’s coming as the largest segment of the Boomers reach their late senior years will necessitate many different solutions to caring for our older population. We will need smart, inexpensive new living arrangements, for example; more workplace and public policies that give family caregivers flexibility; and a complete overhaul of the caregiving profession.

Caregiving needs a lot of solutions—robots included

Indeed, support workers at retirement and nursing homes and those employed by at-home care agencies deserve salaries that reflect the complexity, physical difficulty, and essential service that their jobs entail. But we also need robots, preferably more affordable ones, to help people age at home safely, as most older people want to do. It’s stressful to live miles or continents away from home and family. I imagine there are plenty of engineers in Silicon Valley who may be eager to introduce a robot to a parent’s home in Delhi or Bogota.

The needs of seniors and their families were evident before the pandemic exacerbated both the loneliness epidemic among older people and an extreme caregiver labor shortage. Meanwhile, Japan’s experience with robots—and that of a few pioneering retirement homes in the US—has shown us that artificial beings can appeal to older adults both as companions and assistants.

Rather than fear or laugh at early prototypes of the technology, it’s arguably time to think through how these devices can help stretched-too-thin caregivers reclaim some bandwidth for themselves. And it’s probably time to start tackling tough questions about privacy and safety that will accompany the rise of all the Astros to come.

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