Elon Musk faces skeptics as Tesla gears up to unveil ‘Optimus’ robot

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Robotic arms assemble Tesla’s Model S sedans at the company’s California plant.

San Francisco:

Tesla CEO Elon Musk blamed the over-reliance on factory robots that sent the electric car maker to “production hell” four years ago, saying humans were better at certain jobs.

My, how times have changed.

Musk’s Texas company is now pushing ambitious plans to deploy thousands of humanoid robots, known as Tesla Bot or Optimus, in its factories, eventually expanding to millions around the world, according to job postings. Buzz is building within the company as Tesla holds more internal meetings about robots, said one person familiar with the matter.

In the longer term, Musk said during a TED Talk, robots could be used in homes, make meals, mow the lawn and care for the elderly, and even become a “buddy” or a “catgirl” sex partner.

The robotics business may ultimately be worth more than Tesla’s car revenues, according to Musk, who is now touting a vision for the company that goes well beyond making self-driving electric vehicles.

On his “AI Day” on September 30, Musk said Tesla will unveil a prototype of its Optimus project, an allusion to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots in the Transformers series. Production could start next year, he said.

Tesla is skeptical that it could show technological advances that would justify the cost of “general purpose” robots in factories, homes and elsewhere, according to robotics experts, investors and analysts interviewed by Reuters.

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Tesla already employs hundreds of robots designed for specific tasks in the production of its cars.

Humanoid robots have been developed for decades by Honda Motor Co and Hyundai Motor Co’s Boston Dynamics unit. Like self-driving cars, the robots struggle with unpredictable situations.

“Self-driving cars haven’t really turned out to be as easy as someone thought. And to some extent, it’s the same with humanoid robots,” Shaun Azimi, the leader of NASA’s Dexterous Robotics Team, told Reuters.

“When something unexpected happens, it’s very difficult to be flexible and robust to those kinds of changes.”

At an “Autonomy” event in 2019, Musk promised 1 million robot axes by 2020, but has not yet delivered such a car.

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

To succeed, Tesla will need to demonstrate robots that perform multiple, unscripted actions, said Nancy Cooke, a professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Such evidence could boost Tesla shares, which are down 25% from their 2021 peak.

“If he just lets the robot walk around, or he makes the robots dance, that’s already done. It’s not that impressive,” she said.

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Tesla did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment, but Musk has proven skeptics wrong in the past, kick-starting the electric car market and building a rocket company, SpaceX, even though some product launches were behind schedule.

Expertise in house

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

Musk acknowledged that humanoid robots don’t have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without being given explicit instructions.

But he said Tesla can use its expertise in AI and key components to develop and manufacture smart, but less expensive, humanoid robots at scale.

Tesla is hiring people to work on humanoid bi-pedal robots, with about 20 job openings on “Tesla Bot” including jobs designing key robot parts such as “actuators”.

The code you will write will eventually run in millions of humanoid robots around the world and will therefore meet high quality standards.

Tesla has more than 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 corner.”

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

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Human help

Analysts see more parade 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 thrilled with Optimus,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla stock. “The chances are so small that it will work on a large scale,” he said, saying it is “infinitely more difficult than self-driving cars.”

And then there’s Musk’s own experience with robots in the factory.

During the production hell of 2018, Musk specifically noted the problems of the “fluff bot,” an assembly robot that was incapable of performing simple tasks that human hands can do — picking up bits of “fluff” and putting it on batteries.

He said the cost of having technicians maintain the complicated robot was much higher than hiring someone to do the assembly.

The fluff bot is “a funny example, but makes it clear that autonomy often doesn’t generalize well, and so handling soft fuzzy material that’s not as predictable as a stiff part caused a huge problem,” Aaron Johnson, a mechanical engineer professor at the Carnegie Mellon University, said.

“Human hands are much better at that,” Musk said.

(This story was not edited by UK Time News staff and was generated automatically Platforms.)

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