Why do we do this? It all starts with trust, says UCLA’s Mark Edmonds. He has studied why humans trust robots, and he says that by default, we tend to trust machines to do what they’ve been programmed to do. That means machines have to maintain trust rather than build it.
Trust goes two ways here with Astro. On the surface level, there’s the trust that Astro will follow commands efficiently and well. The deeper trust issue facing Amazon is the company’s volatile history in terms of surveillance and privacy, especially because Astro is primarily used for home surveillance. But Edmonds says some users may be willing to be less critical of that second, creepier trust issue if Astro just does what it’s told. “Astro has to get the functionality right first, before intimacy,” Edmonds says. “Functionality is the harder technical dimension.”
Getting humans to trust Astro may seem difficult, but Amazon has built in some key design elements to help them along, beginning with its “eyes.” It’s hard to call Astro cute—its “face” is really just a screen with two circles on it—but the circles recall the magnified eyes and dimensions of a child or baby animal.
Robopets have long been designed with giant eyes and pouty features to make them instantly adorable to the human brain. In the early 2000s, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle began studying children who interacted with Furbies. She found that while the kids knew they were just toys, they still developed deep attachments to them, thanks in large part to their physical appearance.
In a 2020 follow-up, Turkle writes that the therapeutic robot Paro’s eyes make people feel understood and “inspire [a] relationship… not based on its intelligence or consciousness, but on the capacity to push certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons in people (making eye contact, for example) that cause people to respond as though they were in relationship.”
Kids might be especially prone to feeling like Astro has the capacity to have a relationship with them. Judith Danovitch, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who studies how kids interact with Alexa, says that Astro’s height, eyes, and cutesy look are definite “cues of personhood,” which might both fascinate and baffle children, particularly younger ones who are trying to figure out how to interact with other people.
“Being self-propelled is a cue for animacy for babies,” Danovitch says. “In the natural world, humans and animals are self-propelled. Rocks and other inanimate objects aren’t. It will be a challenge for young kids to understand them.”