6 reasons Amazon should not build a robot
The signs were all there. First Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos donned a giant, mechanized suit. Then, just last month, he causally took a jaunty robot dog for a walk. And, yes, that was the same weekend Bezos played beer-pong and ping-pong against a pair of robots.
Plus, Amazon’s fulfillment centers are teeming with robots.
Bezos obviously has a thing for robots. So the rumor, that Amazon is now aggressively ramping up plans to build a home robot, something like an Echo-on-wheels, should come as no surprise.
I don’t discount the rumor. Amazon’s penchant for quickly and quietly building new gadgets and releasing them with little fanfare (the Echo, the Look, the Show) is almost legend. And its competitive strategy is generally strong. Recently, it occurred to me that, even as Apple improves Siri and gets more and more partners to hop on the HomeKit bandwagon, Amazon’s home automation lead is formidable, if not insurmountable. There are simply more people using Alexa in the home with more gadgets than Apple. Even its acquisitions, think Ring, are solid wins in the home automation race.
Seen from that perspective, Amazon’s apparent desire to build an awesome home robot makes sense. It’ll integrate Alexa, respond to spoken commands, let you control all your other smart home gadgets and, perhaps, follow you around like a lonesome puppy.
I still don’t think Amazon should do it. Here are my five top reasons why Amazon should not build its own robot.
People don’t get it
I’ve been covering robotics since around the turn of the century when two diametrically-opposed but equally awesome consumer robots arrived on the scene. The first consumer Sony AIBO robot (at the time, Sony refused to admit it was a dog) and iRobot’s Roomba Robot Vacuum. While both robots, AIBO and Roomba could not have been more different. AIBO cost approximately $2,000, while Roomba listed for $199. AIBO had multiple servo motors, sensors, a little bit of AI, and learning capabilities. It responded to voice commands and played with you. Roomba’s motors, sensors, and algorithms were all devoted to cleaning your floors and rugs. It couldn’t hear a word you said, but at least it had a remote control.
Early AIBO’s sold out in Japan, but were never more than expensive curiosities around the rest of the world. After six years and some very impressive upgrades (and an admission by Sony that AIBO was, in fact, a dog), Sony discontinued AIBO in 2006. In the meantime, the dull but efficient Roomba sold like hotcakes. Even as the price increased to almost $1,000 for a top-of-the-line model, iRobot has, by its own measure, managed to sell more than 20 million Roombas.
This disparity has always bothered me. Why didn’t consumers embrace the clearly superior AIBO? I think it’s because they don’t care about robots. Sure, they think they’re fun, weird, scary and great sci-fi fodder, but they’re more creeped out than inspired by life-like robots.
Sony, by the way, hasn’t learned this lesson and reintroduced AIBO at CES 2018. It’s an impressive piece of engineering and AI wizardry and does a lot more “than just bark.” Still, I wonder what, if anything has changed that would make today’s consumer more inclined today to shell out $2,000 for a robot puppy than they were in 1999 or 2006.
A good robot will bore
The grin on Jeff Bezo’s face as he walked beside Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini is all you need to know about the kind of robot Bezo’s wants to build. And when he wore that robot suit, Bezos was positively giddy. Amazon will try to build a robot that inspires with lifelike movement and responses. As I said, AIBO had all of that, but the workman-like Roomba won the day.
An animated Echo isn’t such a good idea
Anyone who owns an Amazon Echo can share a story about the time Alexa responded to the TV, unprompted added poultry to your shopping list, or started laughing maniacally. What makes Amazon think people want a mobile Echo following them around the house, anxiously waiting for you to acknowledge it or say its name? The instances of Alexa interjecting when you don’t expect or want it to could increase tenfold.
A great robot will be too expensive
When it comes to what kind of robot to build, Amazon has a lot of options. Wheeled or treaded robots would navigate a one-story home with ease. Quadrupeds, like Bezo’s favorite robot dog, could handle stairs and bi-pedals could walk alongside of us. Each of these choices will have a direct impact on how much the Amazon robots costs. The more sophisticated the ambulation, the more you’ll pay. If Amazon wants to sell a sub-$200 AlexaBot, it must build a smart home companion with mobility equal to what you’d find in a mid-priced iRobot Roomba. It’ll have wheels, be able to roll around and under most tables and furniture and avoid objects with visual and bump sensors. It’ll be an affordable, utility robot. Not exciting, but not too expensive. Tell me again why we need this?
Most people don’t want or need robots
Few of us knew we wanted or needed an Echo until we got one. The main benefit of it is, obviously, Alexa, the first, successful, in-home voice assistant. Sure, Siri on our iPhone’s primed the pump, but it was Alexa that opened the voice assistant floodgates. Could Amazon’s AlexaBot (or EchoBot)do the same thing for home robots?
No. A 2017 Juniper Research Study predicts 1-in-10 America households will have a house-keeping robot in the home by 2020. It also predicted that robot shipments would jump from roughly 15M in 2017 to 48M by 2020. Meanwhile, it said social robots like Pepper, Kuri and Jibo would continue to struggle until at least 2021. Unless I’m wrong, Amazon’s Echo will have no house-cleaning capabilities. Instead, it will be a mobile, conversational bot, constantly underfoot, while never cleaning the space under our feet. This is not the kind of robot people want or are buying.
Buy not build
Amazon should not build its own robot. It should buy an existing robot company and integrate Alexa technology. Two that come instantly to mind are the aforementioned Jibo and Kuri.
Jibo ($899), which has been under development for almost five years and is finally shipping to consumers in quantity, is an adorable, table-top companion that can identify faces, play games, tells stories and dance in place. It’s lovable, but not half as smart as your average Amazon Echo. In my review, I suggested Jibo dump its wonky app for Alexa, but an Amazon Jibo would be an even better solution.
The other option is Kuri, this 20-inch-tall mobile bot is already adept at following you around, recognizing faces, controlling smart home devices and capturing unexpected moments by watching you and your family (yeah, it does sound a little creepy). Kuri checks off all the boxes for a good mobile Echo (it even has a decent microphone array), and is on-point when it comes to Echo colors (black, white and gray).
Nothing would make me happier than Amazon building the ultimate home companion robot, complete with working arms, legs, an animated face, and Alexa’s soothing voice and intelligence. But Amazon can’t build and sell that robot at a price that will satisfy Amazon customers weaned on $99 Echos. An affordable Amazon Robot will be far less exciting and, probably, a disappointment.