Inside Amazon's "Secret" Plan To Build Home Robots

Through acquisitions and innovation, Amazon has been criticized by President Trump and many others for its capacity to kill US jobs.

And now, if a new report in Bloomberg is accurate, the company appears to be going after a new class of employee - the household help - with what could be its next major consumer tech product release: A domestic robot.

The project, which is tentatively being called "Vesta" after the Roman goddess of hearth, home and family, was launched a few years ago. But the company has recently ramped up its hiring of mechanical engineers and other employees to work on the project. If all goes according to plan, Amazon expects to begin placing prototypes in employees' homes by the end of the year.

Codenamed "Vesta," after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family, the project is overseen by Gregg Zehr, who runs Amazon’s Lab126 hardware research and development division based in Sunnyvale, California. Lab126 is responsible for Amazon devices such as the Echo speakers, Fire TV set-top-boxes, Fire tablets and the ill-fated Fire Phone.

The Vesta project originated a few years ago, but this year Amazon began to aggressively ramp up hiring. There are dozens of listings on the Lab 126 Jobs page for openings like "Software Engineer, Robotics" and "Principle Sensors Engineer." People briefed on the plan say the company hopes to begin seeding the robots in employees’ homes by the end of this year, and potentially with consumers as early as 2019, though the timeline could change, and Amazon hardware projects are sometimes killed during gestation.

It's unclear what specific tasks this robot would perform, though some company insiders speculated during their conversations with Bloomberg that the Vesta would essentially be a mobile Alexa. Prototypes have advanced sensors and cameras enabling it to have something like computer vision. Former Apple executive Max Paley is leading Amazon's robot-vision research. While these technologies represent the cutting-edge of consumer-tech research, Amazon could make the Vesta more affordable by offering steep discounts to Amazon Prime customers - one of its favorite strategies for launching new products.

Of course, the success of Vesta would represent an important milestone in consumer tech: Companies have been trying to build robots for the consumer market since the 1980s, typically with little success. The most successful consumer robotics product is iRobot's Roomba, which has only one function (but has sold some 20 million units).

More recently, other companies - including Sony Corp. and LG Electronics - have expressed interest in the space. At CES, LG debuted a new robot called Cloi in a series of demonstrations that proved to be embarrassing failures.

At CES, Sony also demonstrated a new version of its Aibo robotic dog product, which has existed in some form since the mid-2000s, but can't do much other than bark (though it has been programmed to play soccer).

The promise of domestic robots that offer companionship or perform basic chores has tantalized the technology industry for decades. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, introduced the three-foot-tall, snowman-shaped Topo Robot back in 1983. Though it could be programmed to move around by an Apple II computer, it did little else and sold poorly. Subsequent attempts to produce useful robotic servants in the U.S., Japan and China over the years have performed only marginally better. iRobot Corp.’s Roomba, which only does one thing -- vacuum -- is the standout in the field and has sold more than 20 million units since 2002.

More recently, Sony Corp. and LG Electronics Inc. have shown interest in the category. In January at CES, LG showed off a robot called Cloi in a demonstration that failed multiple times. Sony demonstrated a new version of a robotic dog called Aibo, which it sold a version of until the mid-2000s after first unveiling the concept about 20 years ago. It doesn’t do much other than bark (although Aibo has been programmed to play soccer). The canine bot also costs $1,800, or about the same price as a real dog from a breeder.

Advances in computer vision technology, cameras, artificial intelligence and voice activation help make it feasible for Amazon to bring its robot to the marketplace. The retail giant has shown itself willing to partially subsidize the costs of its devices for Prime subscribers who buy more products and subscribe to services through its gadgets. That could also make such a product more affordable for mainstream consumers in the future.

Amazon shares showed little discernible reaction to the news, but shares of iRobot slumped nearly 9%.

iRobot

Of course, with computerized voice and hearing capabilities, having an Amazon-run robot in the home would raise all kinds of thorny privacy issues over whether the robots could be compromised by hackers or intelligence agencies and transformed into tools for espionage or gathering kompromat.

That's an issue that has largely been absent from science fiction: After all, we don't remember the Jetsons ever worrying about whether Rosie was recording and relaying all their conversations to some central database.