Tesla set to unveil humanoid robot Optimus

Tech billionaire says AI bot could one day be used in homes to make dinner, mow lawns and care for the elderly

Anthony Cuthbertson
Thursday 22 September 2022 08:30 BST

Elon Musk and Tesla’s Next Big Product is a Humanoid Robot

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Tesla is preparing to unveil an AI-powered humanoid robot that it hopes will transform factories, workplaces and homes around the world.

Chief executive Elon Musk will reveal the first prototype of the Tesla Optimus bot at the company’s annual AI Day on 30 September.

Mr Musk has previously blamed overreliance on factory robots for sending the electric carmaker to “production hell” four years ago, saying humans were better at certain jobs. But Tesla is now having more internal meetings on robots, a person familiar with the matter said.

In the longer term, Mr Musk said at a TED Talk, robots could be used in homes, making dinner, mowing the lawn and caring for elderly people, and even becoming “buddies” or “catgirl” sex partners.

The robot business might eventually be worth more than Tesla’s car revenue, according to Mr Musk, who is now touting a vision for the company that goes well beyond making self-driving electric vehicles.

The name Optimus is an allusion to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots in the Transformers series. Production could start next year, Mr Musk said.

Tesla faces scepticism that it can demonstrate technological advances that would justify the expense of manufacturing “general purpose” robots for factories, homes and elsewhere, according to robotics experts, investors and analysts.

Elon Musk on stage with a mocked-up version of Tesla’s humanoid robot in August 2021

Tesla already employs hundreds of robots designed for specific jobs for production of its cars.

Humanoid robots have been in development for decades by Honda and Hyundai’s Boston Dynamics unit. Like self-driving cars, the robots have trouble with unpredictable situations.

“Self-driving cars weren’t really proved to be as easy as anyone thought. And it’s the same with humanoid robots to some extent,” said Shaun Azimi, the lead of Nasa’s Dexterous Robotics Team.

“If something unexpected happens, being flexible and robust to those kinds of changes is very difficult.”

At an “Autonomy” event in 2019, Mr Musk promised a million robotaxis by 2020, but has yet to deliver such a car.

Mr Musk’s robots might be able to demonstrate basic capabilities at the event, but it would be hard for them to impress public expectations of robots that are as capable as humans, experts say.

To succeed, Tesla will need to show robots doing multiple, unscripted actions, said Nancy Cooke, a professor in human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Such proof could provide a boost to Tesla stock, which is down 25 per cent from its 2021 peak.

“If he just gets the robot to walk around, or he gets the robots to dance, that’s already been done. That’s not that impressive,” she said.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comments, but Mr Musk has in the past proved sceptics wrong, jump-starting the electric car market and building a rocket company, SpaceX, although some product launches were behind schedule.

Initially, Optimus will perform boring or dangerous jobs, including moving parts around its factories, according to Mr Musk.

He acknowledged that humanoid robots did not have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without being explicitly instructed.

But he said Tesla could leverage its expertise in AI and key components to develop and produce smart, yet less expensive, humanoid robots at scale.

He tweeted on Monday that its Autopilot team was also working on its Optimus robot, when asked about fixes of what it calls “full self-driving beta” – a test version of its new automated driving software.

Tesla is on a hiring spree for people to work on humanoid bipedal robots, with about 20 job postings on “Tesla Bot”, including jobs for designing key robot parts such as “actuators”.

“The code you will write will at term run in millions of humanoid robots across the world, and will therefore be held to high quality standards,” one of the job postings said.

Tesla has more than two million vehicles on the road.

Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer at Agility Robotics, a humanoid robot firm founded in 2015, said the technology “is right now starting to turn the corner”.

“Certainly, an important measure of success is if they make money from it,” he said, referring to Tesla’s humanoid robot efforts.

Analysts see more pageant than product. “It’s all part of distracting people and giving them the next shiny object to chase after,” Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid said.

“Investors are not excited about Optimus,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which holds Tesla stocks. “It’s just such a low probability that it works at scale,” he said, adding that it was “infinitely harder than self-driving cars”.

And then there is Mr Musk’s own experience with robots in the factory. During the 2018 production hell, Mr Musk specifically noted the problems of the “fluff bot”, an assembly robot that failed to perform simple tasks human hands can do – picking up pieces of “fluff” and placing them on batteries.

He said the cost of having technicians maintain the complicated robot far exceeded that of hiring someone to do the assembly.

The fluff bot was “a funny example but drives home the point that autonomy often doesn’t generalise well, so handling soft fluffy material that isn’t as predictable as a rigid part was causing a huge problem”, Aaron Johnson, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said.

“Human hands are way better at doing that,” Mr Musk said, while claiming that more advanced versions in the future would play a major role in the global economy.

“In the future, physical work will essentially be a choice. If you want to do it you can, but you won’t need to do it,” Mr Musk said during the Tesla AI Day last August. “It has profound implications for the economy, given that the economy at its foundational level is labour.”

Additional reporting from agencies

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