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Musk's new humanoid disappoints robot experts

October 1, 2022

Tesla's Elon Musk has often boasted about his plan to sell millions of affordable robots to mark a "future of abundance." Critics think that future is still far off.

A humanoid robot developed by Tesla, known as Tesla Bot or Optimus, is shown in a frame grab from the live video of Tesla's AI Day
Tesla's human-like robot did not seem like 'cutting edge technology,' one expert saidImage: Tesla Inc/Handout/REUTERS

An early prototype of Tesla Inc.'s Optimus humanoid awkwardly walked onto the stage on Friday, while a crowd — largely made up of Tesla employees — cheered and roared. The robot waved its hand and moved its hips, seemingly dancing to the music. An advanced version of the Optimus, said to be constructed with Tesla-made parts, had to be wheeled to the stage and carried to a small podium where it waved and thrust its knee.

This limited activity disappointed several robot engineers, AI experts and tech enthusiasts hours later when the company's artificial intelligence event was streamed to the public.

"The robot can actually do a lot more than we just showed you, we just didn't want it to fall on its face," Tesla Founder Elon Musk said at the event, justifying the caution and fuss.

The tech billionaire disregarded robot demonstrations by other companies, saying that the problem with them is that the robots are "missing a brain" and hence the intelligence to navigate on their own. However, the event displayed little evidence that Tesla's Optimus was superior to its competitors.  

The all-electric race is on

Far from the goal

Musk aims to build a robot that will eventually cost "probably less than $20,000" (about €20,400) and is designed to be replicated "millions of times over," he said at the event. In doing so, he said he wants to enable "a future of abundance" where Tesla robots mow the lawn, cook food and keep a watch on an aging relative.

"Our goal is to make a useful humanoid robot as quick as possible," the billionaire founder told the audience. "There is still a lot of work to be done."

He said he expects the robots to take another three to five years to be ready. 

The humanoid's AI stems from the same technology Tesla uses in its automated car systems, which depend on cameras, sensors and thousands of images to teach itself. The team has been working on the robots for six to eight months. The reliability of Tesla's autopilot systems has come under some question recently and is under investigation by US regulators. One US agency reported that AI errors have led to five deaths.

Optimus is 'next level cringe-worthy'

The demonstration did not impress many outside Tesla's own employees. AI researcher Filip Piekniewski called the robots "next level cringe-worthy" and a "complete and utter scam." He argued that a test fall would be good and necessary for a robot, considering it would likely fall a lot. 

Another robotics expert, Cynthia Yeung, pointed out that none of it was cutting edge.

Other experts criticized Musk's decision to choose the humanoid would make the robot relatively more expensive and difficult to navigate.

"When you're trying to develop a robot that is both affordable and useful, a humanoid kind of shape and size is not necessarily the best way," said Tom Ryden, executive director of the US-based nonprofit startup incubator Mass Robotics.

mk/sms (AP, AFP)