Don’t overthink it: Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot is a joke

After a detailed presentation on the unquestionably remarkable work Tesla is doing in AI, Elon Musk, the company's Technoking, closed the evening with a performance by a spandex-clad dancer. Musk said, "My Tesla Bot."
He said that the dancer in the suit was the model for the new humanoid robot Tesla will be producing in the near future. The applause and dubstep had subsided, but the briefing slides that promised that the Tesla Bot would stand at five feet eight inches (1.7m), be 125 pounds (56kg), and have human-level hands and will eliminate repetitive and dangerous tasks were vague.

Musk says a robot is just a Tesla with no wheels.

Musk stated that Musk's goal to build a human-replacement robotics system, something that no other company in the world can achieve, was a natural step forward from Teslas work on self-driving cars. He said that our cars are semi-sentient robots with wheels. It makes sense to add that to a humanoid body. We are also very skilled at actuators and sensors so we expect to have a prototype next year that looks something like this.

It was, even by Musks standards a brilliant bit of tomfoolery. A multipurpose sideshow that entertained Tesla skeptics, fed fans, ginned up share prices, and made headlines. This is especially important given that most Tesla news this week has been focused on federal investigations into the tendency of Autopilot software to collide with parked emergency vehicles. Musk says that all this is irrelevant. Just look at the man in the spandex suit. It will be a real robot next year, I swear.

Lmao, this is how he made the announcement? Ryan Mac (@RMac18) August 20, 2021

Are you willing to believe him? Do you have to believe him? While I can't answer your question, I will tell you the facts. Elon Musk took to the stage last night to promise that Tesla, a company with driver assistance software that cannot avoid parking ambulances reliably, would soon create a fully functional humanoid robot. Musk stated that the machine would be capable of following human instructions and respond to commands such as please go to a shop and get me the following groceries. This was just minutes after he had shown off the most impressive demonstration of the Tesla Bot: a spandex-clad dancer. You have to admire Musk's chutzpah.

Musk's claims need to be understood. Boston Dynamics, which made Atlas, the world's most advanced bipedal robot, has never claimed that its machines are anything other than R&D. It is not even close to commercial deployment. Recent videos of the machine showed how hard it is to build a bipedal robotic device and how many times Atlas falls and trips. Boston Dynamics has been working with Atlas and its bipedal predecessors more than a decade. Musk believes he can leapfrog their work within a year.

It sounds generous to call it horse shit, honestly.

Carl Berry, a UK University of Central Lancashire lecturer in robotics engineering, said to me, "Calling it horse shit sounds generous. Berry isn't saying he shouldn't do this kind of research, but it does make sense.

He said that while I don't think Tesla is wrong in researching this stuff, they do leave the public with unrealistic expectations about what robotics can and will be capable of for many years.

Musk can make a Tesla Bot-like robot if he wants, which I believe is a certainty. It would not be difficult to create a decent automaton that is comparable to Disney's advanced models for theme parks. He can send it into space once he has it walking out onstage. Just for the headlines. It will just be another distraction if he does. While robotics have a significant impact on manufacturing, there is no reason to assume that they are able to mimic human behavior.

Musk often uses this bait-and-switch method. Think about the changes Musk made to his Hyperloop plans over time. It was originally announced as a railgun-like train system that would transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under half an hour. These ambitions have waned over the years until The Loop was born: a small tunnel you can drive through if you wish. Also known as: A tunnel.

The Tesla Bot reminded me of Sophia, the mechanical chatbot who has appeared on magazine covers and chat shows. Sophia uses misdirection to fool people and is often mocked by AI experts. It also has a job. Ben Goertzel (one of the robot's creators) explained to me that Sophia stimulates our imagination and encourages us to believe the future is closer than it actually is. The robot generates news coverage and funding for its creators.

Goertzel said that if I tell people that I use probabilistic logic to reason about how to prune backward chaining inference tree in our logic engine, they don't know what Im talking. If I show them a smiling robot face, they will get the impression that AGI is possible and nearby.

This is Musk's goal, whether he is trying to inculcate it in investors or others. The Sophia strategy has a twist. Musk doesn't need a simulacrum robot to sell his dream. He only needs a dancer wearing a spandex costume. That's innovation.