Last night at Tesla’s AI Day, a person in a white bodysuit, their face shrouded entirely by a black hood and dark glass, walked on stage with slow, robotic movements. The figure then took a quick dance break, soundtracked by some generic electronic music.
Musk followed the figure soon after. “That was not real,” he said. “The Tesla Bot will be real.”
The auspicious start — we’re tempted to call it self-parody, but Musk isn’t self-aware enough for that — telegraphed what would turn out to be a classic Tesla presentation: lots of hype and promise without much at all to show for it.
“Teslas are basically semi-sentient robots on wheels,” Musk said, despite the well-documented fact that Teslas are not very smart.
Musk claims the Tesla bot will be both friendly (“of course”) and able to complete “dangerous, repetitive, and boring tasks.” It’s clear from the remainder of the presentation that Tesla is approaching this bot — which is code-named “Optimus” — from a one-size-fits all approach. Forgive us for our skepticism, but this sounds like a crock of crap.
How will this be helpful? — Elon Musk wants Optimus to sit by your side while you’re fixing a car and hand you a wrench; he wants Optimus to be able to run out to the grocery store and pick up some olive oil. Optiumus, he says, will run on AI that allows it to do… basically anything.
The problem is that Musk’s interests here are inherently at odds with each other. The world as it is today was built by humans, for humans, yes, but we are not very efficient. That’s why so many robots don't look like us. Robots that are actually capable of efficiently completing menial tasks humans don’t like doing are by nature not humanoid. The Optimus mock-up is nice to look at, sure, but that doesn’t… solve any problems.
Other companies — companies that focus solely on building robots — have been creating robots for individualized purposes for years. They do not look like humans. Boston Dynamics could be the rare exception to this rule, but even those don’t really look like humans, other than being bipedal. Make no mistake: This is a massive promise to make on a public stage. But that’s Musk’s whole schtick, now, isn’t it?
Another empty promise — Musk brought out a human in a tight-fitting suit for his presentation because he does not have anything else to show. Right now that dancing person is much more real than Optimus. And yet: Musk claims the Tesla Bot prototype will be ready to show off next year.
In the long history of Musk’s lofty promises, very few of them have actually panned out. In late 2016, Musk said Tesla’s fully autonomous self-driving software would be available for demonstration by the end of 2017. It is now more than halfway through 2021. We still have not even watched a Tesla drive itself on an open road.
So no, we’re not expecting to watch Optimus run around a Tesla stage next year. Not even a little bit. Maybe, if we’re lucky, the dancing guy will come back and provide some entertainment.