Elon Musk unveiled prototype versions of Tesla’s Optimus robot at Tesla’s AI Day 2022 on Friday. They were, well, definitely robots.
At the beginning of his speech he offered this disclaimer: “I would like to set some expectations regarding our Optimus robot. As you know, last year it was just a person in a robot suit. But we’ve come a long way, and it’s going to be… very impressive in comparison.”
And were the things revealed by the sixth most valuable company in the world impressive compared to a person in a robot suit? You decide!
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During a three-hour event that took place on a Friday afternoon, Musk and some of his Tesla employees educated the public not just about the robots themselves, but Tesla’s entire robotic operation and its AI development process. Demonstrating his stiff, stumbling robots, Musk was in a sort of self-deprecating fool mode rather than outright stormy vision mode, constantly appealing to the audience’s good will and reasonable expectations.
Eventually, Musk explained, “We just didn’t want it to fall on our faces.”
The live demonstration featured a wire-loaded skeletal Optimus robot that can walk on its own, alongside a much less agile but slightly less repulsive Optimus with wires hidden beneath a streamlined body. However, this more streamlined version requires a whole team of people around her to keep her from tipping over. Believing the content of a video presentation played on a screen during the live demo, the corded version, when attached to a ceiling-mounted contraption, can water plants with a large plastic watering can and move long, slender metal objects inside any context where someone might need a robot to do something like that.
And for a projected price of “probably less than $20,000,” you too could have this very normal human machine in your home. Maybe. Musk and his companies have a long history of imaginative ideas that have yet to see the light of day. Like the robotic snake chargers, or Hyperloop, that Musk admitted was a ploy to get California to shut down high-speed rail in the state.
Discussing the hurdles in building the robot, the Tesla team revealed that the prototype on stage has been in development for the past six months. The hope is to have a working design within the “next few months…or years”. Demonstrations during the preview focused on how data was processed for each segment of the robot’s body: the arms, feet, joints, and even the “bio-inspired design” of its human-like hands.
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But Musk said part of the reason the event was happening in the first place was some sort of high-budget solicitation for help. He said Tesla wants to “convince some of the most talented people in the world to come to Tesla and help make this happen.”
The Optimus-Bot is powered by the same Autopilot hardware in Tesla’s cars. The AI was then retooled for its new environment, capturing real-world tasks like lifting a box in motion. Of course, Optimus can’t do any of those things reliably, but Musk claimed the Teslabot is “the most important product development we’re doing this year.”
As many robotics experts have noted, many companies are making great strides in developing robots that not only walk, but can run and jump as well. But even those robots won’t be watering our houseplants anytime soon, and in any case, Musk makes more promises than actually delivering on those promises.
Musk was also careful to point out that Tesla isn’t entirely under his control and that it is instead “a public company with a single class of shares,” a status that Musk claimed means “the public controls Tesla.” – an idiosyncratic claim that seems to conflate public stock trading with public ownership. In any case, Musk emphasized, “If I go insane, you can fire me — that’s important. Maybe I’m not crazy after all.”
Given that similar robotic development operations at other companies like Honda and Toyota have been running unchallenged for decades, there’s no reason to believe that robotic hardware and software development will suddenly lead to new claims that Musk is insane. And so far, what we’ve taken away from Musk’s prototyping is that Optimus is a robot that’s bipedal and can walk.