Elon Musk's Tesla Bot nothing but 'bizarre and brilliant tomfoolery', says journalist

  • 23/08/2021
The announcement comes days after an investigation into Tesla's Autopilot system was launched.
The announcement comes days after an investigation into Tesla's Autopilot system was launched. Photo credit: Supplied

The "Tesla Bot", a humanoid robot prototype announced by Elon Musk last week, is nothing but a "bizarre and brilliant bit of tomfoolery", according to a senior technology reporter.

During Tesla's Artificial Intelligence (AI) day last week CEO Elon Musk announced a prototype, designed to do dangerous, repetitive, or boring work that people don't like, would be launched next year.

But The Verge's James Vincent argues it was all just a distraction, "a multipurpose sideshow that trolled Tesla skeptics, fed the fans, ginned up the share price, and created some eye-catching headlines."

Just over two hours into the day, a computer-generated mock-up of the Tesla Bot was shown to attendees, while a dancer, dressed to resemble that mock-up,  took to the stage.

The mock bot then danced to loud techno music, while Musk stood at the side of the stage chuckling, before telling the audience "Tesla is arguably the world's biggest robotics company because our cars are semi-sentient robots on wheels."

"It kind of makes sense to put that on to a humanoid form. We're also quite good at sensors and batteries and actuators so we think we’ll probably have a prototype some time next year that basically looks like this.”

However Tesla's ability to deliver a fully-functioning robot that Musk says would have "profound implications for the economy" in the timescale announced deserves some scepticism.

Just last week US car safety regulators announced a formal probe into the company's Autopilot driver assistant system after a series of crashes between cars and emergency vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it had identified 11 crashes in the last three years in which Teslas have "encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes."

"Is the Tesla Bot the next dream shot to pump up the hype machine?" Raj Rajkumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, asked.

"I can safely say that it will be much longer than 10 years before a humanoid bot from any company on the planet can go to the store and get groceries for you," he told Reuters.

Carl Berry, a lecturer in robotics engineering at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK was more blunt.

"[Calling it] horse shit sounds generous," he told Vincent.

"I’m not saying that he shouldn’t be doing research like this, but it’s the usual overblown hype. Between them and companies like Boston Dynamics they leave the public with unrealistic expectations of what robotics is currently capable of or will be for many years.”

Boston Dynamics last week unveiled a new video showing it's Atlas humanoid robots doing parkour.

And, while it was both 'amazing and terrifying', Atlas has been in development for eight years and each step of the parkour was carefully programmed.

Even then there were multiple failures for what the company describes as a "research and development tool" and not for commercial use - the vault was only successful half of the time and even when Atlas got over the barrier it would often lose its balance and fall backwards.

So should people believe Musk and the hype around the Tesla Bot?

Vincent says that's for individuals to decide, but his scepticism was obvious as he re-stated the facts, including the unreliability of the car near emergency vehicles.

"Musk said that the machine would be able to follow human instructions intuitively, responding correctly to commands like “please go to a store and get me the following groceries. This was minutes after he'd ushered away the best demo of the Tesla Bot available: a dancer in a spandex suit.

"If nothing else, you have to admire the chutzpah," he concluded.