Future Tense

A Brief History of Adorable, Vaguely Creepy Robot Dogs

Amazon’s Astro isn’t the first puppy to come from this litter.

The Amazon Astro in a house.
Astro is Amazon’s bid to get a head start on the home robot market. Amazon

Amazon unveiled a long-awaited home robot on Tuesday, and he may or may not be a good boy. Like an extremely advanced puppy, “Astro” is designed to move around the home and assist its owner with small tasks like checking whether the stove is on, playing music, and delivering drinks. The robot can also recognize the faces of certain people and is equipped with a periscope camera that it can raise to get a better view of its surroundings. Amazon says that it will be available sometime later this year on an invite-only basis for $999.

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Astro is about 20 pounds and two feet tall, about the size of a small dog. Obviously, Astro was also the name of the (non-robot albeit futuristic) dog in The Jetsons, though Amazon claims this is merely a coincidence. While Astro is primarily meant to be a smart assistant, much like Amazon’s Echo Show, it’s partly designed to mimic sentience with flourishes such as a touchscreen face consisting of two eyes that blink and grow and shrink to express emotion. It can also dance and maneuver its face to follow you. “Astro’s personality not only helps it communicate intent and offer delightful experiences, but it also evokes emotions like empathy when people use the device,” a press release for the product reads. “In testing, we’ve been humbled by the number of people who said Astro’s personality made it feel like a part of their family, and that they would miss the device in their home after it was gone.”

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In a publicity video, Amazon’s vice president of product Charlie Tritschler says that what pushed him and his team to start working on the Astro was their belief that robots will be helping with everyday tasks in most homes in five to 10 years. Astro is Amazon’s bid to get a head start before the market becomes too saturated. Launching such a product nevertheless has its risks given how many robotic helpers and pets have already landed in the, well, doghouse. Let’s take these cyber-pets out for one last walk.

Perhaps the most prominent personality-infused home robot to flounder in recent memory was Jibo, which had once graced the cover of Time Magazine as one of the “best inventions of 2017.” Based on social robotics research coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jibo was meant to offer companionship while also performing the functions of a traditional home assistant like reminding its owners about appointments and summarizing the news. The robot resembled a bobble head and expressed emotion through the tone of its voice. Yet it took about three years for the manufacturers of Jibo to progress from concept to getting the device in consumers’ hands, and in the interim devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home added more and more advanced functions, albeit without the anthropomorphic touches. Tech reviewers were also largely unimpressed with the utility of the final product, which sold for $900. The servers operating Jibo were ultimately shut down in 2019, severely limiting the functions of the robots.

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Jibo was in some ways the spiritual successor of Aibo, the robot dog that Sony first released in 1999. Aibo, which sold for $2,000, was designed to respond to commands, navigate around obstacles, take pictures, and play music. Though Aibo was solely intended to be an entertainment product, Sony hoped that consumer feedback would guide development of a future home assistant. Aibo was on the market for seven years, during which time it gained a cult following. In 2006, Sony decided to discontinue production of Aibo in a bid to make the company more profitable. It also shut down development of Qrio, a similar humanoid home robot that never actually made it to market. At the time, CNET characterized Aibo’s cancelation as a win for U.S. robotics companies, which were focusing on robots that could perform tasks after deciding that the market for robot companions wasn’t very big. Certain users, though, did seem to form a significant attachment to their Aibos. After Sony announced that it would no longer be supporting updates for Aibo in 2014—effectively bricking the little fellows—a Buddhist temple in Japan began holding funerals for hundreds of the decommissioned robot dogs. Sony eventually revived the Aibo line with new models in 2018.

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There is, of course, a pantheon of toys that also aspired to be interactive companions like the Furby, the iDog, and Cozmo, though it’s clear that Amazon wants Astro to be more than just a faddish trinket. It’s probably easier and more profitable to sell something useful like a Roomba, instead of an Aibo. If recent history is any indication, it seems that the Astro has a better chance of enjoying mainstream success if it focuses more on being a helper than a friend.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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