Tesla is preparing to unveil an AI-powered humanoid robot that it hopes could transform factories, workplaces and homes around the world.
CEO Elon Musk will unveil the first prototype of the Tesla Optimus bot during the company’s annual AI Day on September 30.
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 some jobs, but Tesla is now holding more internal robot meetings, a person familiar with the matter said.
In the longer term, Mr. Musk told a TED Talk that robots could be used in homes, cooking dinner, mowing lawns and caring for the elderly, and even becoming a “buddy” or a “catgirl” sexual partner.
The robotics business could eventually be worth more than Tesla’s auto revenue, according to Musk, who is now touting a vision for the company that goes far beyond making self-driving electric vehicles.
The name Optimus is an allusion to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots from the Transformers series. Production could begin next year, Musk said.
According to robotics experts, investors and analysts, Tesla faces skepticism about its ability to show technological advances that would justify spending on “general purpose” robots in factories, homes and elsewhere.
Tesla already employs hundreds of job-specific robots in the production of its cars.
Humanoid robots have been developed for decades by the Boston Dynamics unit of Honda and Hyundai. Like self-driving cars, robots struggle with unpredictable situations.
“Self-driving cars haven’t really turned out to be as easy as we thought. And it’s the same with humanoid robots to some extent,” said Shaun Azimi, leader of NASA’s Dexterous Robotics team. .
“If something unexpected happens, it’s very difficult to be flexible and robust in the face of these kinds of changes.”
At an “Autonomy” event in 2019, Mr Musk promised 1 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 they would be hard pressed to impress public expectations of robots as capable as humans, experts say.
To succeed, Tesla will need to show robots performing several unscripted actions, said Nancy Cooke, professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Such evidence could give a boost to Tesla stock, which is down 25% from its 2021 high.
“If he just makes the robot walk, or if he makes the robots dance, he’s already done. It’s not that impressive,” she said.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment, but Mr. Musk has in the past proved doubters wrong, launching the market for electric cars and establishing a rocket company, SpaceX, although some product launches have delayed.
Initially, Optimus will do boring or dangerous work, including moving parts around its factories, according to Musk.
Mr. Musk acknowledged that humanoid robots do not have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without being explicitly told.
But he said Tesla could leverage its expertise in AI and key components to develop and mass-produce intelligent but cheaper humanoid robots.
He tweeted Monday that its Autopilot team is also working on its Optimus robot, asked about fixes for what it calls the Full Self-Driving Beta – a test version of its new automated driving software.
Tesla is in the process of hiring people to work on humanoid bipedal robots, with around 20 job postings on “Tesla Bot,” including jobs designing key robot parts like “actuators.”
“The code you write will eventually run on millions of humanoid robots around the world, and will therefore be held to high quality standards,” one of the job postings said.
Tesla has over 2 million vehicles on the road.
Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer at Agility Robotics, a humanoid robot company founded in 2015, said the technology “is starting to turn the page right now.”
“Certainly a big measure of success is whether they make money out of 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,” said Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid.
“Investors aren’t excited about Optimus,” said Gene Munster, managing partner of venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla stock. “It’s just such a low probability that it will work at scale,” he said, saying it’s “infinitely more difficult than self-driving cars.”
And then there’s Mr. Musk’s own experience with robots in the factory. During 2018’s production hell, Mr. Musk specifically noted problems with the “fluff bot”, an assembly robot that failed to perform simple tasks that human hands can – pick up pieces of “plush” and place them on batteries.
He said the cost of having technicians to maintain the complicated robot far exceeded that of hiring someone to do the assembly.
The bot fluff is “a fun but driving example that autonomy often doesn’t generalize well, and that handling a soft, fluffy material that isn’t as predictable as a stiff piece was a huge problem. “Aaron Johnson, a mechanic engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said.
“Human hands are much better at doing this,” Musk said, while saying more advanced versions in the future will play a major role in the global economy.
“Essentially in the future, physical labor will be a choice. If you want to do it, you can, but you don’t have to,” Musk said at Tesla AI Day last August. “This has profound implications for the economy, given that the economy at its fundamental level is work.”
Additional agency reports.