Amazon’s New Robot: Evil Wall-E?

Last Week Amazon Unveiled its newest bit of hardware, a “personal robot” on wheels armed with a screen, cameras, and their Echo (aka Alexa) “smart” speaker built in. The $999 machine (for “early invitees,” $1,499 when fully released), says Gizmodo, “finally answers the question: ‘What if Wall-E were real, evil, and knew how to beatbox?’”

Wheeled robot on floor.
Evil Wall-E —er, I mean, “Astro” the robot. (Photo: Amazon)

The best way to get invasive tech into your house is to make it cute, and seem useful. “What could go wrong?” Gizmodo asks.

My wife and I noticed that when we talked around our Alexa boxes at home, very often we would see online ads for what we talked about shortly after.

For example, we discussed getting a home security system. We did get one, but not from any of the ads that followed us around the Internet for days afterward. It wasn’t just one time, but example after example after example — things we only talked about, and had not searched for on our computers or phone.

We had three of the things, and I pulled the plug on all of them. Sure enough, the phenomenon ceased. Hm.

You might say I don’t trust Amazon, even though it has made life easier for rural dwellers like me. If you did say that, you’d be right.

Internal Documents

Motherboard, the tech publication of Vice, also ran an article about the Amazon ’bot, dubbed “Astro” (though it looks nothing like The Jetson’s space mutt).

Still from the Jetsons.
Ruh roh! The original Astro from 1962. Rosie the maid sold separately. (Image: Hanna-Barbera) [Hmm… how come Elroy doesn’t cast a shadow?]
“Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity,” said one of the developers who, naturally, is kept anonymous.

“The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable. … They’re also pushing it as an accessibility device,” the developer continued, but rather it is, “at best, absurdist nonsense and marketing and, at worst, potentially dangerous for anyone who’d actually rely on it for accessibility purposes.”

And with Alexa built in, you know that its security app, called “Sentry,” will be listening to everything you say. Motherboard got hold of some internal documents from the developers. “Sentry is required to investigate any unrecognized person detected by it or Audio Event in certain set of conditions are met [sic],” they quote one of the documents as saying. “When the person is identified as unknown or 30 [seconds has] passed, Sentry should start following the person,” it continues.

Yeah, an intruder wouldn’t notice a cheesy toy robot following them around the house and decide to use the firearm they brought along “just in case,” which sounds like a wonderful way to escalate an already dangerous situation.

Privacy Schmivacy

Of course, for it to be able to recognize that someone in the house is “unknown,” you have to “register” the face and voice of everyone who normally has access to the house. And we can be sure that Amazon won’t abuse knowing who everyone is, and what each particular person says. Right…?

Portrait of the film's main character.
The real Wall-E from the 2008 film * of the same name. (Image: Pixar)

Let’s just say that there’s no mention of the Three Laws of Robotics. Hell, at least Roomba cleans the floor while it runs around the house! That’s useful.

To be fair, facial recognition is done “locally,” Amazon carefully points out in that blog post — not uploaded to their servers — as part of its “Privacy by design.” But I note they don’t say a word about the privacy of conversations in your house on that page. But you can trust their other, unlinked, policies. Right…?

But then there’s that quality problem again. “The source also corroborated that Astro’s facial recognition abilities perform poorly,” Motherboard says, “which is concerning for a device designed mainly to follow people around and determine if they’re a stranger or not.”

“In addition to consulting with several Amazon Scholars who specialize in computer vision,” Amazon said in a blog post in anticipation of criticism, “we also consulted with an external expert in algorithmic bias, Ayanna Howard, dean of the Ohio State University College of Engineering, to review the steps we took to enhance the fairness of the [visual identification] feature.”

It is well known that facial recognition systems are particularly apt to err when trying to recognize people of color. “U.S. government tests find even top-performing facial recognition systems misidentify blacks at rates five to 10 times higher than they do whites,” Wired magazine reported in 2019.

It hasn’t gotten better since then. Facial recognition “is more than just a gimmick,” wrote Harvard University in a blog post a year ago. “It is employed for law enforcement surveillance, airport passenger screening, and employment and housing decisions. Despite widespread adoption, face recognition was recently banned for use by police and local agencies in several cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Why? Of the dominant biometrics in use (fingerprint, iris, palm, voice, and face), face recognition is the least accurate and is rife with privacy concerns.”

Book cover.
Asimov’s Three Laws were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, included in this 1950 collection (Original cover. Modern edition available on, yes, Amazon*. No longer 35¢.)

Speaking of Evil, a month ago Facebook was embarrassed (if that’s actually possible) by a racist visual identification gaffe, Engadget (among others) reported.

I really hope A.I. becomes a useful tool for all of us, rather than just governments and giant corporations. But we’re definitely not anywhere close to that yet.

(Is it merely a coincidence that Kit asked last week if we could watch The Matrix*, which is all about A.I. run amok? We did in fact watch it — my first time since seeing it in the theater in 1999 — 22 years ago?! Time flies when you’re whiling away your time in your pod, but the film holds up well. Maybe entirely too well.)

So Think Carefully About whether you want the richest man in the world to take your hard-earned money from you in exchange for putting an “Evil Wall-E” in your house. There won’t be an Astro in my house, but someday if I do suddenly find one following me around here, I just might employ that firearm option….

July 2022 Update

“I sacrificed myself,” said Voice AI expert Sarah Andrew Wilson, by “falling” onto the floor in view of Astro and asking it for help. It’s not just “potentially dangerous for anyone who’d actually rely on it for accessibility purposes,” as a developer warned (see above), it’s criminally negligent in emergency situations:

A phone would do better. Unfortunately, it cannot be programmed to follow you around.

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23 Comments on “Amazon’s New Robot: Evil Wall-E?

  1. I’ve been an early adopter of several Amazon products. I have the original Echo and Echo Dot and use them daily. Fire TV is also great.

    Other products have been hit and miss. The Echo for my car turned out to be worthless to me. I tried to give it away and no one wanted it. I think I’ll pass on the Echo “Wall-E”. I have no doubt that eventually this will evolve into something useful, but someone else is going to have to beta test it.

  2. I don’t see the point of this device. I think it would be underfoot half the time, destroy itself the first time I used my stairs, and the last thing I need is a robot following me and watching me do my business in the bathroom.

  3. If I went to a friend’s house and one of these things was following me around, I think I would take Chewbacca’s tactic with that robot mouse thing in the original Star Wars, and roar at it until it ran off in terror.

  4. I will never have a “smart” speaker in my house listening to me all the time. I don’t trust any of them.

    Case in point: Four years ago I received a Google Home Mini as a “free” gift when I upgraded my phone. I still haven’t broken the factory seal on its box.

    • For what it’s worth, the Mini has a physical microphone switch. I kept one next to my computer, switch turned off, to cast Spotify through it while I was working. Every time I turned it on, it would remind me “the microphone is turned off”.

      It’s boxed up right now as we’re between houses, but I will do the same when we move into our “forever home” later this month.

      • It has a physical microphone switch. But how do you KNOW that this does anything? “They” could still be listening.

        I avoid all of the possibilities by not having any of these devices. Amazon, Google, etc., will have to get my information by where I go and what I buy online, even if that is “so 2000s”.

        If the switch didn’t work, then independent security researchers would notice it sending data back to the Amazon mothership and would publish it far and wide to establish (or continue) their credibility, and take Amazon down a notch. -rc

    • Same deal for me (although it was a Harmon Kardon device) … but I gave it to my mother-in-law, and before you start with “those jokes” (LOL) … she’s blind, and can’t easily operate electronic devices. But she can sure say “Hey Google … Play some Frank Sinatra for me”. She absolutely LOVES it.

      I know blind people who use smartphones, so don’t count them out! -rc

  5. I don’t have any Echo and don’t want one. I’m not so worried about it listening to me, I just don’t think it would be useful. I have to use captioning for movies and such and I see how horrible “automatic” captioning is for Youtube videos. With my weird accent, who knows what would happen! (I also have an old iPhone and don’t use Siri either.)

  6. It’s bad enough that our phones are listening and feeding us ads based on nothing more than what my husband and I discuss out loud. Until they make a decent Rosie, I’m out!

  7. Interesting comment about the reaction of an actual intruder. I hadn’t thought of that, but agree….

    I made my living in High Tech (now retired), and have almost every gadget ever made my Apple or Amazon. However, the one (two) exceptions to the rule — I have never had any Alexa device, and never turn Siri on for any of my Apple devices (except my car navigation — reason below).

    In my case, it is not that I expect them to be evil and grab me in the middle of the night. I simply do not see enough benefit to tolerate the errors in translation. My car GPS insists that I only talk to it (no typing) when the car is moving. Makes sense, other than my wife (passenger) would be doing the typing. The voice recognition misses as often as it hits though, and I often have to tell it where I want to go 3 or 4 times until it gets it right.

    In short, I just do not see any fathomable purpose for such a toy in my house….

  8. I will never have the device in my house nor would I ever have Alexa or anything remotely like that in my house. It’s bad enough that ads pop up to buy crap I have no interest in, but looked up out of curiosity or just general interest. UGH!

    I use an “incognito” or “private” window when I search something and don’t want to have it recorded as something I’m interested in. As a writer, I search for darn near EVERY topic …but it doesn’t mean I’m “interested” in being pitched more about it. -rc

    • DuckDuckGo does not track your searches. It does keep searches in general for suggested searches. And it is free.

      Brave is another one: they have their own (Chrome-based) browser that rejects tracking, and also their own search engine that doesn’t track either. I’ve been using it more and more. -rc

  9. I know it is anthropomorphism, but I can’t look at that image without thinking the robot is not only surprised, but horrified by what it sees. I’d rather not look at that ‘face’ even if it was a secure device.

  10. I’ve disabled Alexa as best I can — she keeps trying to get me to turn her back on, both on my Kindle and my phone (Android, but I find Google’s search engine the most useful). I want nothing to do with an AI keeping Track of everything I say! There are SO MANY ways people are just plastering their private information over for anyone to use, it’s crazy! I’m not (excessively) paranoid, but why should I make it easy for corporations, governments, intelligence agencies, etc., to know everything about me?

    I certainly won’t even get near an Evil Wall-E, just like I won’t use one of the DNA identification services. I may as well just lie down and let the NSA run over me repeatedly!

  11. Amazon should not aim this at home use, but to security companies needing to do internal patrols.

  12. There is an ammo shortage, so why waste a round this way? Work on your golf swing (or softball one) instead….

    As to the stairs problem, didn’t the Doctor and Ace get tripped up by that???

    A bullet is more symbolic …and more satisfying! -rc

  13. I got an Amazon Echo Dot as a gift. The only time I plug it in and use it is when I want to listen to music (a local radio station as a skill that I use). When it is on, I mute myself (one of the buttons will turn off the microphone) — that seems to keep it from listening to me as when it is muted and I say the “wake” word, it does not respond.

    When I read that I could change the wake word, I got excited. Unfortunately, there is only about 4 words that can be used; I wanted to name mine Eddie.

    (In the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” they used a ship called the “Heart of Gold” — its computer was named Eddie. The ship and computer are in the movie, too).

  14. So what does it do if it doesn’t recognize you — run in circles, scream and shout? Auto-record? My inclination, should I encounter one, is to walk out the door; when it follows me (if it doesn’t, give it a boost), kick it down the stairs, and close the door with it outside. I can then go about my business amid fantasies of what it’s doing to try to get back in (reality check — it would probably just sit there). Or lock it in the bathroom and see if it can figure out what to do next.

    Seriously, this is really gross. $1,000 (on sale!) for that? And what’s the point? Does it call the police if it can’t recognize somebody — auto-self-SWATting? If not, what? Call you? Call Alexa so she can start continuously nagging as it follows the suspect? It’s hard to come up with a more intrusive yet nonsensical concept. What were they thinking?

    BTW, I trigger Siri when I need her; the idea of an always-on microphone in my house is truly freakish. Especially from Google, the master info hoover. There was always speculation that they’d do more than listen for engagement, and it sounds like you’ve confirmed that from your own experience. Good to know.

    FWIW, I don’t have a device with Siri, so I can’t say whether it is as intrusive; I’m guessing not. (I do have an iPad, but Siri isn’t set up.) -rc

  15. “Sentry,” will be listening to everything you say and is supposed to activate to follow when it hears a strange voice.

    So what is it going to do when you are watching your favorite cop show or movie and the non recognized voice says “stick em up this is a robbery”.

    Call in some (soon to quite rightly be very angry) cops.

    I got rid of my Android phone because you cannot prevent it tracking you and as far as I am concerned where I am is none of Google’s business. Same for Amazon, etc, etc.

    As for FaRcebook – !@#$%^&*()

  16. I’m always amazed at the government conspiracy believers that ignore big business. Our privacy is at much more risk from people trying to manipulate us to spend money with them than our governments. (Not that I trust our government.)

    • And the ones who will not get the vaccine because “They inject a tracker” (false), but will gladly keep a cell phone with them that tracks their movements.


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