Why is Elon Musk, posterchild of AI doomsday, creating AI-powered robots?

Elon Musk Tesla Bot

After repeatedly warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, and sparring with fellow tech billionaires on the issue, Elon Musk wants to create AI-powered humanoid robots. Speaking at his electric vehicle company Tesla’s first AI Day event in California, Musk gave a preview of the Tesla Bot – a general purpose, bipedal, non-automotive robot. So, what gives?

According to Musk, building a humanoid robot is the next logical step for Tesla because it has already become “the world’s biggest robotics company.” He says:

Our cars are semi-sentient robots on wheels. With the full self-driving computer, the inference engine on the car, which we’ll keep evolving obviously… neural nets, recognizing the world, understanding how to navigate through the world… it kinda makes sense to put that into a humanoid form.

Tesla Bot: Your friendly neighborhood humanoid

At 5’8”, this humanoid form will weigh 125 pounds and have a carrying capacity of 45 pounds. Deadlifts, meanwhile, would be capped at 150 pounds. The Tesla Bot’s top walking speed would be 5 miles per hour, with its head doubling up as a display screen for important information. It would have “human-level” hands capable of carrying out orders like: pick up a bolt and attach it to a machine with a wrench.

Behind the hood, the robot would use Tesla’s self-driving computer tech, autopilot cameras, and AI tools such as neural net planning, auto-labeling of objects, and simulation capabilities.

“It is intended to be friendly, of course,” assures Musk, explaining:

We’re setting it at a mechanical level, a physical level, that you can run away from it. And, most likely, overpower it.

And then he adds with a laugh:

Hopefully that won’t happen, but you never know.

Why is Elon Musk creating Tesla Bot?

Musk says Tesla Bot is being designed to perform tasks that are unsafe, repetitive, or boring – all the things that people hate to do, including but not limited to physical labor and going to the store to get the groceries.

While Musk clearly anticipates a market for his robots in developed countries with a declining working age population (or a workforce on Mars?), one of his biggest motivations to build the machine is to make sure that nobody else beats him to it. This way, Musk believes, he would be able to control the level of AI humanoids possess:

If we don’t, someone else will — and we want to make sure it’s safe. We have almost all the pieces needed for humanoid robots, since we already make robots with wheels, so we should probably make this also.

And yes, in a Q&A session, Musk does get asked about the possibility of superhuman AI eventually running amok. While he admits that indeed is a concern, he’s hopeful Tesla would be able to narrow the AI down to a “useful” level that will be used “unequivocally” for good:

We hope this does not feature in a dsytopian sci-fi movie.

Other car companies are also building humanoid robots

Musk’s Tesla wouldn’t be the first car manufacturer to venture into the non-automotive robotics vertical. If anything, he’s fashionably late to the party.

Honda has been working on the ASIMO robot for years and plans to commercialize it by 2030. Toyota is developing its own humanoid robot, anticipating a “high demand for robots that make effective use of many joints to accomplish delicate tasks, the way humans do”. And then there is Robonaut, a state-of-the-art, highly dexterous, humanoid robot that NASA has developed in collaboration with General Motors.

But if there’s any automotive company that Musk would view as a rival in this space, it’s Hyundai. The South Korean carmaker has recently acquired robotics company Boston Dynamics whose humanoid robot, Atlas, can slay a parkour course like it’s nobody’s business – something that’s left even Musk impressed:

Meanwhile, a working prototype of the Tesla Bot – code name “Optimus” – is expected by next year, provided Musk gets the mechanical, electrical, controls, and software engineers he needs to leverage Tesla’s AI expertise beyond the vehicle fleet.

“Join our team, help build this,” he signs off. Apply here.

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