Retail giant Amazon is reportedly building a household robot that can navigate its way around the house and complete tasks – and it could be in homes as soon as next year.
The robot, a sister product to Amazon’s Echo smart home device, is codenamed ‘Amazon Vesta’, according to a Bloomberg report that quoted inside sources.
Prototypes of the “mobile Alexa” reportedly use advanced cameras and computer vision software – technology similar to that used for self-driving cars – to enable it to move throughout a house.
The report claimed that Amazon intends to trial Vesta in employees’ homes later this year and hopes to introduce the product to consumers in 2019.
There were no further details about what Vesta would look like or what tasks it could perform.
However, a clue may lie in the name ‘Vesta’ – the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family – and has some commentators surmising that it could help complete everyday tasks around the house.
All this may sound like something straight out of a science fiction movie, but a European robotics company SoftBank has already designed the world’s first humanoid robot that can recognise emotions – Pepper.
Dozens of job listings are currently being advertised for Amazon’s Californian-based hardware research and development division Lab126, including roles such as a software engineer in robotics and principal sensors engineer.
When contacted by The New Daily, Amazon Australia remained tight-lipped about its new project.
“We do not comment on rumour and speculation,” a spokeswoman said.
Safety concerns about robots in the home
Michael Milford, chief investigator at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, said the risk factor would be lower than self-driving cars.
“A robot for the home is smaller and slower, unlike a fast-moving one-tonne car,” he said.
“Generally speaking these robots start with the simple tasks – moving around the house [and] being able to do surveillance, and then move onto more complicated tasks like manipulating objects.
“A home robot is the dream for many roboticists – vacuum cleaner robots got us a little of the way there but weren’t entirely satisfying.
“If this becomes a reality it could become a major point in the history of robotics.”
Retail analyst Scott Kilmartin said Amazon is leading the battle for the home, ahead of Google, Apple and Facebook, but raised concerns about the law constantly playing ‘catch-up’ with technology.
“One risk is whether the robot will be made from hard or soft materials. When there are glitches – which there will be early on – there is potential for a hard robot to injure, maim or even kill,” he said.
“Real life is messy, as opposed to a relatively controlled environment like a factory production line or a pick ‘n pack warehouse. Code doesn’t deal with constantly changing environments perfectly.
“Another question is, does the consumer have full control of Vesta to program and shut it down in your house or does Amazon?”
A greater threat to privacy
But just as concerns have heightened around corporations’ lack of transparency about data collection, privacy could become an even greater risk should home robots become more advanced and whether users will be more willing to share personal information with robots.
“If it’s used for surveillance, is it watching other things happening in the house? What other data is it collecting about us for Amazon?” Mr Kilmartin posed.
Robot ethics expert Sean Welsh said that ideally, a home robot would be able to clean the house, move dirty clothes to the laundry, take out the garbage and “act like Rosie the robo-maid in The Jetsons“.
“Privacy issues will be massive,” he said.
“But if the robot can wash the clothes and stack the dishwasher and it doesn’t cost the Earth, people will buy it!”