In August 2021, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the electric car manufacturer planned to get into the robotics business.
In a presentation led by a human dressed as a robot, Musk said work began on a “friendly” humanoid robot to “navigate a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and tedious tasks.”
Musk now has revealed a prototype robot called Optimus, which he hopes to mass-produce and sell for less than US$20,000 (A$31,000).
— Tesla (@Tesla) October 1, 2022
At the unveiling, the robot walked on a flat surface and waved to the crowd, and a video showed it doing simple manual tasks such as carrying and lifting. As a robotics researcher, I didn’t find the demonstration very impressive, but I’m hopeful it will lead to bigger and better things.
Why would we want humanoid robots?
Most robots in use today don’t resemble humans at all. Instead, they are machines designed to perform a specific purpose, such as the industrial robots used in factories or the robotic vacuum cleaner you may have in your home.
So why would you want one in the shape of a human? The basic answer is that they could work in environments designed for people.
Unlike industrial robots, humanoid robots may be able to move and interact with humans. Unlike robotic vacuum cleaners, they may be able to climb stairs or cross uneven terrain.
And besides practical considerations, the idea of ”artificial people” has long attracted inventors and science fiction writers!
Room for improvement
Based on what we saw in the Tesla presentation, Optimus is far from being able to work with people or in human environments. The capabilities of the robot on display are far behind the state of the art in humanoid robotics.
The Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics, for example, can run outside and perform flips and other acrobatic maneuvers.
And while Atlas is an experimental system, even the commercially available system Figure from Agility Robotics is much more capable than what we’ve seen from Optimus. Digit can walk on different terrains, dodge obstacles, rebalance itself when bumped, and pick up and drop objects.
Bipedal walking (on two feet) alone is no longer a great achievement for a robot. Indeed, with a little knowledge and determination you can build such a robot yourself with open source software.
There was also no sign in the Optimus presentation of how it will interact with people. That is essential for any robot that works in human environments: not only for working with people, but also for basic safety.
It can be very difficult for a robot to perform seemingly simple tasks, such as handing over an object to a human, but this is something we wish a household robot could do.
Others have tried to build and sell humanoid robots in the past, such as Honda’s ASIMO and SoftBanks Pepper. But so far, they’ve never really taken off.
Amazon recently released Astro-robot can enter here, but can also follow the path of its predecessors.
Consumers seem to be skeptical of robots. To date, the only commonly used household robots are the Roomba-style vacuum cleaners, which have been available since 2002.
To succeed, a humanoid robot must be able to do something that humans can’t to justify the price tag. At this stage, the use case for Optimus is not very clear yet.
Hope for the future
Despite these criticisms, I am hopeful about the Optimus project. It is still in its infancy and the presentation seemed mainly aimed at recruiting new staff.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 2, 2022
Tesla certainly has enough resources to tackle the problem. We know it has the capacity to mass-produce the robots if development gets that far.
Musk’s talent for attracting attention could also be useful – not only to attract talent to the project, but also to spark consumer interest.
Robotics is a challenging field and it is difficult to act quickly. I hope Optimus succeeds, both in making something cool that we can use – and in moving the field of robotics forward.
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