So Many Cameras, in Search of a Vision

Amazon needs a more compelling version of the future

Maybe we’re just fools, but one reason why tech PR events announcing a new set of products and services have caught on as quasi-pop culture is that they offer a chance to see a vision of the future. We’re chasing that feeling we had the first time we saw the iPhone, or the MacIntosh, or even something as now mundane as Gmail. We want the experience of having someone open the lids to our heads again.

Amazon’s events rarely offer that feeling. It’s not that the company doesn’t have big ideas; it’s that they only occasionally come in the scale of a gadget. There’s the Kindle, there’s the various Alexa portals, and then there’s a lot of iterating around the edges, new variations on popular things we’ve seen before, either from Amazon or someone else.

As The Verge’s Dieter Bohn writes, “We expected AI to look like HAL 9000. Instead, it looks a lot more like a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.” Or as Shira Ovide writes for the New York Times, “Amazon is America’s silliest inventor. It’s Ron Popeil without a filter, plus Alexa. Amazon seems to be making any doodad it can dream up and seeing what people do with it.” This does not sound like a company whose vision of the future seems radically compelling.

That’s a shame, because a big vision of the future is worth chasing, not least because the details can change. Think about the debut of the iPhone. There was a lot of controversy around the edges of that device — on its expense, on control over applications, and over which global carriers would be able to offer it, among others. Within a few short cycles, the iPhone was available on more carriers, at lower prices, and with a burgeoning App Store. Even more changed in terms of design, specs, features, all generating their own controversies in turn. But the Big Vision of the iPhone largely stayed the same.

You could say the same thing about the Kindle; it, too, has gotten less expensive, with better storage and features, and a streamlined design, but the value proposition is basically the same: an entire electronic bookstore (Amazon’s) at your disposal any time, any place.

It is hard to see exactly what is the Big Vision animating Amazon’s new Astro Robot, easily its most gee-whiz PR moment from Tuesday’s big event. If anything, documents obtained by Vice suggests the device’s vision itself is both overbroad and half-baked.

Amazon's new robot called Astro is designed to track the behavior of everyone in your home to help it perform its surveillance and helper duties, according to leaked internal development documents and video recordings of Astro software development meetings obtained by Motherboard. The system's person recognition system is heavily flawed, according to two sources who worked on the project…

“Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity. The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable,” a source who worked on the project said. “The device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost. The mast has broken on several devices, locking itself in the extended or retracted position, and there's no way to ship it to Amazon when that happens.”

In fact, the robot helper and accessibility aid turns out to primarily have a sentry function. This might have some use cases, but they’re not terribly compelling ones for a household. The Washington Post, too, notes that almost all of Amazon’s devices are for the home, and lacking much of a new raison d’etre for being there, revert to surveillance and security.

What started seven years ago with a microphone in a speaker has turned into a flying indoor surveillance drone and an autonomous robot with a telescoping camera in its “face.” The company framed the latest releases as technology to help with the burden of everyday life, solving problems like too much screen time, keeping track of an aging relative far away or leaving your fridge open. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

And the Post’s reporters are correct; the fact that Apple and Android, not Amazon, control the smartphone does constrain Amazon into taking a “stop looking at your phone” approach to home computing. The problem seems to be that instead, Amazon wants you to be looking at anything (and everything) else.

Smart home and internet of things reporter Stacy Higginbotham cinches the paradox here when she writes that “we are getting really close to the smart home of my dreams, and I’m increasingly unsure if I want it.”

On the one hand, it is a tremendous advancement in both AI and ambient computing to train a network of machines to recognize both voices and faces, to deploy in response to custom sounds, and to “see” into users’ kitchens and pantries to recognize when stocks are low. On the other, when one has entrustes so much private and personal information to a single company, well, the value proposition had better be slightly more compelling than “skip a step when you reorder your groceries.”

Amazon’s iterative approach doesn’t create many “aha!” moments where you can see how your life, or indeed how entire industries, can change in response to a new product feature. It happens by bits, and includes as much discomfort as wonder.

All this makes the company well-suited to succeed in certain fields. Astro is a weird home companion, but maybe a useful bot for a job site or small warehouse, or, yes, Disney World. (There are dogs and there are dogs.) Tech pundits salivated over the idea of an Apple television set, but it never came together; the television set industry’s and Apple’s preferred revenue structures just don’t go together any more. But they jibe pretty well with Amazon’s.

And it’s a matter of time and perspective. If your issue with Astro is that it’s too expensive, that will almost certainly change. If your issue with Astro is that it’s fundamentally weird to have an anthropomorphized cop-slash-pet-slash-slave living in your home, that’s not going to budge anytime soon.

Navneet Alang tweeted that “There must be technology somewhere, not released by trillion dollar corporations, that has the capacity to make one feel sort of amazed at what is possible,” adding that “I just feel like I've lost sight of one half of what drew me to tech in the first place — the sense that something might get a bit better. Instead, the basic structure of liberal capitalism doesn't seem to have changed. If anything, its downsides seem to have intensified.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this, in that we are as journalists, critics, users, and as a public much more likely to be critical of a large tech company’s goals and unaccounted-for externalities when it releases new products and services. We’re more skeptical of big capitalism and how our data was used. In 2007, the not-even-released iPhone was a privacy nightmare, a 24/7 Apple store in your pocket, but we were less likely to fixate on that. The dominance of Facebook and Google and the hollow promises of the advertising model are starting to wear people down.

But — and it may sound mean to say this — I don’t want people to lose sight of the specific ways Amazon is swinging and missing right now. These aren’t early days, and Amazon isn’t an upstart launching its first Android tablet. This is a major company with a huge footprint in consumer technology and lots of hardware projects (some successful, some not) under its belt. It’s a company that could use another big hit, a post-Alexa, post-Bezos franchise, and by all the impressions so far, it’s not finding one. That’s interesting to me.