- Announced at Tesla AI Day, Elon Musk wants to build a pie-in-the-sky all-purpose robot, with prototypes next year.
- His description involves work that today’s robots can’t do, like responding well to changes.
- He’s right that robots have a place where humans would be in danger.
Elon Musk has announced his plans for a new Tesla humanoid robot that will excel at “mundane tasks,” but he’s making some common robotics mistakes with his grand plans.
What does the future of a Tesla robot look like? With the help of a couple of robotics specialists, we can separate the truth from the hype in Musk’s claims.
What can we expect from a true humanoid robot?
Making a robot look and even behave like human figure brings many programming challenges. Will the Tesla bot do bipedal locomotion, the complex two-legged walking that humans have perfected over millions of years? (Or dance like the very obvious human in a Tesla Robot suit did at Tesla AI Day when Musk made the announcement?) Northwestern University robotics professor Michael Peshkin said it’s tasks like this that are often underestimated by the public.
“A baby spends several years learning how to move their body around,” Peshkin said. “We never appreciate how sophisticated people are to begin with. It’s the things that babies can do that are so hard for robots.”
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Musk mentioned “mundane tasks” like screwing in bolts or doing grocery trips—both of which would require a lot of specialized, adaptive programming
. The robot would have to respond and change “on the fly,” something very challenging. What if it doesn’t have the correct size bolts, or all the Honey Nut Cheerios are sold out at the store? That’s on top of Musk’s description of the robot as taking verbal instructions, adding a further requirement for natural language processing. (And we know Siri isn’t always fantastic at giving you the best answer when prompted.)
What do we think Tesla Bot will actually do?
Peshkin said the robot Musk is describing sounds like, maybe, the human workers at an Amazon warehouse. People can reach for and grab different items from a diverse stack of items. They could possibly throw out an apple that’s gone bad. While the term “unskilled labor” is often used for jobs like this, we actually use an incredible amount of multilayered judgment and caution when doing these tasks that seem simple.
“When you try to automate things people do, like picking things off the shelf in a warehouse, you often wind up changing the warehouse,” Peshkin said. “You typically change the environment, too. They have barcodes, the racks are at standard locations, the things are boxed in a different way, you make all kinds of adaptations—making the world safe for robots.” The task is made as uniform as possible so that it can be handled by programming.
Screwing in bolts, as a single job, is something robots can do well today. Manufacturing has had some of the world’s most advanced application robots for decades because of how relatively “doable” a lot of manufacturing tasks are with our current abilities with robots. A steady stream of goods might pass on a conveyor belt, where a robot must simply reach out, twist or glue a particular part or item into place, and then pull back its “arm.”
“Most robot hands found in manufacturing are metallic, rigid, of limited dexterity and only few of them have more than three fingers,” Arizona State University roboticist Heni Ben Amor said. Human hands are unfathomably complex, and it would take many motors to create a similar robotic hand. “Human hands can delicately deal with everything from a tomato, to a violin, or even a jackhammer. Part of the reason for this is that the human hand combines different materials, including a.) hard bones, b.) muscles, and c.) a soft skin.”
What should Tesla Bot do?
One of the places Musk has gotten it right is that robots are able to go where the work is dangerous or boring for human workers. “Why not make robots do things where people don’t belong, where the task is dangerous, or things people don’t do well?” Peshkin said. “Let people continue to do the things people do well.”
But again, that’s not necessarily a robot that can listen to instructions and process language into a variety of tasks. “At the software and intelligence level, a major challenge with autonomous robots is the large variability in human environments,” Ben Amor said. “Robots in this case cannot rely on a human programmer and would have to constantly improvise and change their behavior.”
It’s easy to read between the lines to combine Musk’s ambitions to travel to and settle Mars with his comments here about robots. After all, a lot of the daily work of keeping a settlement going will be boring or dangerous—he could imagine robots working in manufacturing or even farming.
But he’s specific to say this robot will be a nonthreatening size and ability set, just 5’8” and a slight 125 pounds with a top speed of about five miles per hour. The “dangerous” work will be more like construction sites than, say, settlement security.
Peshkin helped to invent the idea of cobots, which are, he says, collaborative robots that work together with people. “Aren’t there things where people can team with robots in a physical way, each contributing their strengths?” he said. It’s easy to imagine that a carefully programmed helper or “booster” robot could be a big help to people on Mars or people who already work in dangerous places like underground mineral mines.
Ben Amor also said that Musk’s comments are an exciting rallying cry, even if what he’s describing is still very far out from our current abilities with robots. “Mr. Musk is mostly a visionary and is excellent at rallying young and old scientists and engineers behind a grand goal,” Ben Amor said. “Along the way he will likely hire and inspire a new generation of roboticists. Even achieving a small aspect of what he announced would be a major milestone in the field of robotics.”
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