An early prototype of Tesla Inc.'s proposed Optimus humanoid robot slowly and awkwardly walked onto a stage, turned, and waved to a cheering crowd at the company's artificial intelligence event Friday.
But the robot with exposed wires and electronics - as well as a later, next-generation version that had to be carried onstage by three men - was a long way from CEO Elon Musk's vision of a human-like robot that can change the world.
Bumble-C to Optimus
In yet another 'Transformers' reference, the prototype was initially called 'Bumble C', and Tesla said the robot will evolve into Optimus in a later stage. It, then, will be able to carry a 20-pound bag, use tools, and have a precision grip for small robots. The supercomputer used in Tesla vehicles would also be used in the robot.
The robot will be equipped with wireless connectivity as well as audio support and hardware-level security features. It contains a 2.3 kilowatt per hour battery pack which is "perfect for about a full day's worth of work", runs on a Tesla chip, and has Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity, The Verge reported.
Can Optimus really make your dinner?
No, at least, not yet.
Experts in the robotics field were skeptical that Tesla is anywhere near close to rolling out legions of human-like home robots that can do the "useful things'' Musk wants them to do - say, make dinner, mow the lawn, keep watch on an aging grandmother.
Musk said that Friday night was the first time the early robot walked onstage without a tether. Tesla's goal, he said, is to make an "extremely capable'' robot in high volumes - possibly millions of them - at a cost that could be less than a car, that he guessed would be less than $20,000.
Tesla showed a video of the robot, which uses artificial intelligence that Tesla is testing in its "Full Self-Driving'' vehicles, carrying boxes and placing a metal bar into what appeared to be a factory machine. But there was no live demonstration of the robot completing the tasks.
An experimental test robot that Tesla said was developed in February walked out to wave at the crowd on Friday, and Tesla showed a video of it doing simple tasks, such as watering plants, carrying boxes and lifting metal bars at a production station at the company's California plant.
But a more streamlined 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 called it Optimus and said it would be able to walk in a few weeks.
Employees said Optimus robots would have four fingers and a thumb with a tendon-like system so they could have the dexterity of humans.
"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 said existing humanoid robots are missing a brain and the ability to solve problems on their own. By contrast, he said, Optimus would be an "extremely capable robot" that Tesla would aim to produce in the millions.
Musk and the stock market
Infamous for sending out tweets that have an impact on stock market prices, one of Musk's latest tweets regarding the launch of Optimus could land him in trouble with Tesla shareholders.
Portfolio manager and investor Ross Gerber tweeted at Musk, and said that he would "love to discuss the long term global economic implications of Optimus and how investors should view tesla moving forward..." Musk ersponded, "I don’t care about boosting the stock, but the economic implications are obvious."
The US Securities and Exchange Commission has kept a close watch on the billionaire's tweets since his first run-in with the authority in 2018. After a tweet about having 'secured funding' to take Tesla private, which had massive stock market impact at the time, the SEC sued the entrepreneur on charges of misleading investors.
The SEC and Musk agreed to amend an earlier settlement to add specific topics he can’t tweet about or otherwise communicate in writing without advance approval from a Tesla lawyer.
These topics included the company’s financial condition, potential mergers or acquisitions, production and sales numbers, new or proposed business lines, projections and forecasts that haven’t been previously published, and Musk’s purchase or sale of Tesla securities.
In his recent Twitter troubles, Musk had tweeted about his decision to back out of the deal, which had also garnered the SEC's attention.
Other companies developing bots
Other automakers, including Toyota Motor and Honda Motor, have developed humanoid robot prototypes capable of doing complicated things like shooting a basketball, and production robots from ABB and others are a mainstay of auto manufacturing.
Honda more than two decades ago unveiled Asimo, which resembled a life-size space suit and was shown in a carefully-orchestrated demonstration to be able to pour liquid into a cup. Hyundai also owns a collection of humanoid and animal-like robots through its 2021 acquisition of robotics firm Boston Dynamics. Ford has partnered with Oregon startup Agility Robotics, which makes robots with two legs and two arms that can walk and lift packages.
But Tesla is alone in pushing the market opportunity for a mass-market robot that could also be used in factory work.
Promises yet to be fulfilled?
Musk is notorious for overpromising, particularly on his timelines. Tesla announced its Cybertruck pickup with "unbreakable" windows that broke onstage when it demonstrated them in 2019. The truck still has not been delivered. On Thursday, Musk tweeted that it would be "waterproof enough to serve briefly as a boat."
In 2019, Musk promised a fleet of autonomous robotaxis would be in use by the end of 2020. They are still being tested.
When it unveiled the concept last year, Tesla sent a human dressed as the cyborg onstage to perform robotic gestures followed by more complex dance moves - perhaps simulating the range of motion of an eventual Tesla Bot. Still, some expressed doubt that Tesla could build a functional - and capable - robot any time soon. Tesla's demo didn't show its technical capabilities so much as its ambition for the robot.
What the experts said
"When you're trying to develop a robot that is both affordable and useful, a humanoid kind of shape and size is not necessarily the best way,'' said Tom Ryden, executive director of the nonprofit startup incubator Mass Robotics.
Ryden said carmakers' research into humanoid robotics can potentially lead to machines that can walk, climb and get over obstacles, but impressive demos of the past haven't led to an ``actual use scenario'' that lives up to the hype.
"There's a lot of learning that they're getting from understanding the way humanoids function,'' he said. "But in terms of directly having a humanoid as a product, I'm not sure that that's going to be coming out anytime soon.''
Critics also said years ago that Musk and Tesla wouldn't be able to build a profitable new car company that used batteries for power rather than gasoline.
The demo didn't impress AI researcher Filip Piekniewski, who tweeted it was "next level cringeworthy'' and a "complete and utter scam.'' He said it would be "good to test falling, as this thing will be falling a lot.''
"None of this is cutting edge,'' tweeted robotics expert Cynthia Yeung. "Hire some PhDs and go to some robotics conferences @Tesla.'' Yeung also questioned why Tesla opted for its robot to have a human-like hand with five fingers, noting "there's a reason why'' warehouse robots developed by startup firms use pinchers with two or three fingers or vacuum-based grippers.
As for their bread and butter, Tesla Inc. on Sunday announced lower-than-expected electric vehicle deliveries in the third quarter, as logistical challenges overshadowed its record deliveries.
The top electric car maker said "it is becoming increasingly challenging to secure vehicle transportation capacity and at a reasonable cost," but some analysts were also concerned about demand for high-ticket items due to the weakening global economy.