Report: Amazon Developing Alexa Robot
The robot is a project of Amazon’s research and development subsidiary Lab 126 in California. If it is ready in time, it will likely make its first public appearance in the fall, when Amazon usually showcases new hardware. Rumors about the robot, supposedly named Vesta, first started circulating earlier this year, with stories that more engineers are joining the project, although Amazon has so far declined to comment on the project. Reports so far describe what sounds a lot like an Echo on wheels, controlled by the Alexa voice assistant and assisted by cameras in navigating and carrying out commands.
Rohit Prasad, vice president, and head scientist, Alexa artificial intelligence, seemingly foreshadowed this product earlier in 2019. At a conference in March, he openly discussed Alexa’s limitations and mentioned internal discussions within Amazon wondering why the voice assistant was not smarter. His conclusion? Prasad said in March:
The only way to make smart assistants really smart is to give it eyes and let it explore the world.
It may be that Amazon views and Alexa robot as just the next product in its rapidly expanding portfolio of smart devices. However, Prasad’s comments suggest it could also be the first step in enabling Alexa to not just provide more features, but also to collect more data so it can better understand the world.
An Amazon robot might face an uphill battle for acceptance. Recent attempts by smaller companies to make appealing home robots have not done well. Consumer robot maker Anki shut down a few months ago, as did the briefly hot robot maker Jibo, and Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri last year.
Voicebot’s Bret Kinsella pointed out last year that consumer robots are struggling in part due to their high price point and lack of clear use cases. Most of the use cases consumer robots such as Jibo and Kuri originally planned to address are more than adequately fulfilled today by smart speakers that you can acquire for less than $30. That is a big contrast from the $700 – $1,200 price tags that most of the consumer (social) robots have listed to date. Smart speakers in some ways are headless robots. The key limitation compared to robots is a lack of mobility.
A Low-Priced Robot Goddess?
Of course, Amazon has a lot of advantages over companies like Anki, Jibo, and Mayfield Robotics. More and more people are using the Alexa voice assistant in some way every month, making it easier to insert a robot into that ecosystem. Plus, Amazon has a juggernaut of a manufacturing infrastructure in place already, one that already builds industrial robots for internal use. It would be relatively easy for the company to pump out consumer robots as well and do it at a more competitive price point, once it has a design in place. And, of course, Amazon has a ready distribution channel.