Tesla showed off a prototype of its humanoid robot ‘Optimus’

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Tesla showed off a prototype of its humanoid robot 'Optimus'
Image via Tesla AI Day 2022 event (Courtesy: Tesla)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled a prototype of its humanoid robot ‘Optimus’ yesterday, predicting that the electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer will be able to produce millions and sell them for less than $20,000.

Musk said Tesla would be ready to take orders for the robot in three to five years and described a decade-long effort to develop the product, the most detailed vision he has provided to date on a business he has said could be bigger than Tesla’s EV revenue.

Tesla’s push to design and build mass-market robots that will also be tested by working in its factories differs it from other manufacturers who have experimented with humanoid robots.

The highly awaited unveiling of prototype robots at Tesla’s office in Palo Alto, California, was also part of Musk‘s effort to role Tesla as a leader in fields such as artificial intelligence, rather than just a company that makes “cool cars.”

On Friday, an experimental test robot that Tesla said it developed in February walked out to greet the crowd, and Tesla showed a video of it performing simple tasks like watering plants, carrying boxes, and lifting metal bars at a production station at the company’s California plant.

However, a more streamlined version of the current one, which Musk said was closer to what he hoped to put into production, had to be rolled out on a platform and did a slow wave to the crowd. Musk dubbed it Optimus and projected that it would be able to walk in a few weeks.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to refine Optimus and prove it,” Musk said, adding later, “I think Optimus is going to be incredible in five or 10 years, like mind blowing.”

He claims that existing humanoid robots are “missing a brain” and the ability to solve problems on their own. In contrast, Optimus, he said, would be an “extremely capable robot” that Tesla hoped to mass-produce in the millions.

Other automakers, such as Toyota Motor and Honda Motor, have developed humanoid robot prototypes capable of complex tasks such as basketball shooting, and production robots from ABB and others are a mainstay of auto manufacturing.

However, Tesla is the only company pushing the market opportunity for a mass-market robot that could also be used in manufacturing.

Tesla-designed components will be used in the next-generation Tesla bot, including a 2.3-kWh battery pack carried in its torso, a chip system, and actuators to drive its limbs. The robot is designed to be 73 kg in weight.

Tesla engineers, who were all dressed in black T-shirts with an image of metallic robotic hands making a heart shape, described how they developed the robot’s features, including how the fingers move, with a focus on reducing production costs.

“We are trying to follow the goal of fastest path to a useful robot that can be made at volume,” Musk said.

Musk said Tesla is changing the terms of a well-known mission statement that has become part of its appeal to investors and climate activists by committing to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

Musk stated, “Optimus is not directly in line with accelerating sustainable energy.” “I think the mission does somewhat broaden with the advent of Optimus to – you know, I don’t know: making the future awesome.”

Musk described the event as a recruiting event, with the engineers on stage catering to a technical audience. They described how Tesla created robot hands and how they used crash simulator technology to test the robot’s ability to fall on its face without breaking.

Musk, who has previously spoken about the risks of artificial intelligence, stated that the wide adoption of robots has the potential to “transform civilization” and create “a future of abundance, a future of no poverty.” However, he stated that he believed it was critical that Tesla shareholders play a role in vetting the company’s efforts.

“If I go crazy, you can fire me,” Musk said. “This is important.”

Many Twitter reactions were positive, focusing on the speed with which Tesla’s development effort has progressed since August of last year when Tesla announced its project with a stunt in which a person dressed in a white suit simulated a humanoid robot.

Henri Ben Amor, an Arizona State University robotics professor, called Musk‘s $20,000 price target a “good proposition,” given that humanoid robots currently cost around $100,000.

“There’s some discrepancy between sort of the ambition and what they have presented,” he said. “When it comes to dexterity, speed, the ability to walk in a stable fashion and so on, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Aaron Johnson, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, also said the robot’s need was debatable.

“What is really impressive is that they got to that level so quickly. What is still a little murky is what exactly the use case is for them to make millions of these,” Johnson said.

At the event, Tesla also discussed its long-delayed self-driving technology. Engineers working on self-driving car software described how they trained software to choose actions such as when to merge into traffic and how they speed up the computer decision-making process.

Musk stated in May that the world’s most valuable car company would be “worth basically zero” if it did not achieve full self-driving (FSD) capability, and the company is facing increasing regulatory scrutiny as well as technological challenges.

Tesla’s full self-driving capability, Musk said at Tesla AI Day 2022 on Friday, will be “technically” ready for global rollout by the end of 2022, but regulations will be a hurdle.