Will Tesla's Optimus robot become a reality? | FT Tech
As Elon Musk demonstrates a humanoid robot, we explore Engineered Arts - a humanoid robot factory - with the creator of a highly realistic looking robot. Experts analyse Musk's proposals so far, looking at how these robots could become a reality
Produced and directed by Tom Hannen. Additional filming by Richard Topping, Nicola Stansfield, and Horacio Jones
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RICHARD WATERS: And when he first talked about this, he had a human dressed up as a robot dancing on stage. And I think a lot of people thought it was a joke.
MATT WEBB: What will we see at Tesla in the next presentation? The really hard things to do are dexterous manipulation. So if you see something that can do this, hats off to Tesla. They've cracked some really hard problems.
Even if it just touches the surface, without causing a problem, if it auto contacts, that's impressive. Walking not so much because that's fairly much a solved problem. We've seen fantastic demos for Boston Dynamics. They've probably got a bit of catching up to do.
What I think we'll actually see is some movement where it never contacts anything, which is just a doddle to do because you've got no collisions. You don't have to worry about anything. We'll probably see a lot of CGI.
And they'll blend the CGI with little bits of real footage. And most people won't make the distinction between what's real and what's CGI.
My name's Will Jackson. I am the director of Engineered Arts Limited. We are a robotics company based in Cornwall in the UK, and we specialise in humanoid robots.
Typical cost is anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. If you can put a robot in a space and 10,000 people come into that space in a day, and they all enjoy that experience, then that's the economic model.
Customers would be museums, visitor attractions. Basically anybody who wants to deliver a message in a novel way might use a robot.
Look at the body language and watch Elon's face as he tries to justify what this robot is for.
ELON MUSK: The Tesla bot will be real. We're setting it such that it is at a mechanical level, at a physical level, you can run away from it.
And most likely overpower it. So hopefully, that doesn't ever happen. But you never know. Five miles an hour, you can run past it and that'd be fine.
WILL JACKSON: He's trying to justify it in economic terms and say, oh, OK, it's going to be in a factory and it's going to help us produce cars more economically.
ELON MUSK: Can it navigate through the world without being explicitly trained? I mean, without explicit line by line instructions? Can you talk to it and say please pick up that bolt and attach it to a car with that wrench? And it should be able to do that.
WILL JACKSON: We've had automated car factories for 50 years. Tesla has one of the best automated car production lines in the world. There is not one single humanoid robot in use there, and they don't need one.
- So why do you think he's doing it?
WILL JACKSON: Because it's cool and because it's the future. If I walked into the street and stopped three people and said, imagine in the future you're going to see technology you've never seen before. What are the things you're going to see?
And they will say space rocket, space travel. I'm going to fly to the moon. I'm going to step into my flying car and go to work. I'm going to get on a hoverboard and whiz down the street, and I'm going to have a robot butler in my house that brings me drinks.
It's an idea that's in our collective imaginations. Those ideas have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
MATT WEBB: The thing is when did the Roomba come out? 20 years ago? I think when the Roomba came out, we expected that, by now in the 2020s, our homes would be full of domestic robots of all kinds, and they're not.
SARAH O'CONNOR: I remember going to a robotics place in Japan once on a trip. And the demo robot would sort of do something and then it would just freeze. And the human would have to scurry in and try and make it work again. And you think, well, at this point are you really saving any human labour at all if one robot needs two people to keep fixing it all the time?
RICHARD WATERS: With Musk, I think we really have to think about two different types of announcements. I think of the things that are achievable. Maybe they're ambitious. Maybe his timelines are a little short for what it'll take.
The electric car is a very good example of this. There were electric cars. They didn't perform very well. He set a very ambitious goal of getting the price down, the quality up, the range of these vehicles.
And he achieved that. It took him a little longer than he thought, but he achieved it. So that's one type of promise that Musk makes.
But I think there's a whole other class of promise. I'm going to take humans to Mars. I'm going to build cars that drive themselves with no human intervention at all. These are stretch goals of an altogether different order, because they require technology leaps that we haven't got to yet. And he's assuming that he can solve these technology challenges.
And quite frankly, we don't know yet, he's been promising self-driving cars for years and they haven't arrived. This is how Musk operates. He sets these big, ambitious goals. And I think humanoid robots fits into that second category of just a hugely ambitious idea. It may take years, it may take decades. Probably, the latter.
ELON MUSK: It's intended to be friendly, of course--
--and navigate through a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive, and boring tasks. Basically, what is the work that people would least like to do? Yeah.
SARAH O'CONNOR: Ever since the Industrial Revolution, there's been this fraught question over automation. Does it destroy jobs? Does it create jobs? Does it make the quality of work better or worse?
One of the early types of automation we saw was these threshing machines. Basically could thresh wheat much faster than people could. And it used to be that threshing was something that would keep people going through the winter months. It would give them some kind of income.
So when these threshing machines started to arrive in farmer's barns, there were riots. And people burned them down and they took the farmers hostage. And they sent threatening letters.
Half of south of England was in flames at one point when these machines just first started to arrive on these farms. So I think that tells you something about the way that we often find automation and threatening. And I don't think that's irrational.
In the long run, what we now looking back is that automation has made us much richer, because we can produce more stuff, more wealth for every hour of labour because we've got help from all of these machines and other technology.
ELON MUSK: Essentially in the future, physical work will be a choice. If you want to do it you can, but you won't need to do it. Obviously, that's profound implications for the economy, because given that the economy at its foundational level is labour-- I mean, capital equipment is just distilled labour-- then is there any actual limit to the economy? Maybe not.
SARAH O'CONNOR: All through the course of human history, automation has also caused fighting, upset, nervousness battles over who controls it and how it changes the way we work, as well as how much work there is.
ELON MUSK: Tesla is arguably the world's biggest robotics company because our cars are semi-sentient robots on wheels.
MATT WEBB: It's not an entirely wild idea that a car company is who comes up with the first domestic humanoid robots. The first commercial computer in the UK was invented by a tea company. Lyons was a big company with tea rooms, huge bakeries, and a huge technological innovator.
When they heard about ENIAC, they went to Cambridge and they built a computer of their own. That computer works on payroll, worked on managing inventory, and they sold it to others as well. So if a tea and cakes company can introduce business computing, then why not car company introduced domestic robots?
- Electro, come here. And here he comes, ladies and gentlemen, walking up to greet you under his own power.
(ECHOING) Under his own power. Under his own power. Under his own power.
MATT WEBB: When Musk demos his humanoid robot, he's not just announcing a product. What he's doing is he's pathfinding. He's finding a way that technology could go in the future.
That doesn't help just him, that helps everyone else who's watching. Anyone else who's kind of sitting on a new kind of mechanism or a new kind of AI or some potential breakthrough will look at Musk's demo and think, hey, I could do something which helps in that direction. They might not take that to Musk's company directly. They might do something with a competitor, or something else entirely. But when you put a vision out into the world of the way technology can go in future years, it has all kinds of knock-on effects and kind of stimulating innovation and ideas.
WILL JACKSON: People talk about the uncanny valley with robots. So it's the idea that the closer you get to looking like a human, the more acceptable the robot becomes, until you get too close. And if you get too close, it becomes spooky.
Until you get to a point where you can't actually tell the robot from a person, in which case it's perfectly fine again. It's interesting there are actually two graphs. There's the dynamic and there's the static. What I mean by that?
So dynamic, it's how does a robot move? And the static is how does a robot look? So lying on my desk here, so here's quite a realistic robot face-- quite spooky, quite eerie. It's actually got stubble on it.
I would agree with most people who say that's quite spooky and quite weird. And actually, one of the attractions of this kind of robot is its uncanny spookiness. You might go to the cinema to watch a horror film. It's horrific. It's scary, but you still go and it's still entertaining in the same way that an uncanny robot can be entertaining too.
ELON MUSK: It's around 5 foot 8, has sort of a screen where the head is for useful information.
MAJA PANTIC: It really depends where the robot will be used. For example Hans robotics built a number of robots with rather realistic faces, while Tesla and Boston Dynamics build the robots that actually lack the face. I prefer lacking of the face. And the reason is when you communicate with humans, it's extremely important that the humans understand that this is just the robot.
That there should not be any true trust. This is just a machine this is artificial intelligence-driven machine. It is not a true human. And I believe lacking the face will make this very clear.
If you use the robots for helping autistic children learn, for example, social cues and how typically developing people act and react, because that's one of the problems that autistic children have. They don't understand how they can express their feelings in a way that others understand. The robots with extremely accurate faces would be extremely good for that. So it really depends on the application.
RICHARD WATERS: I remember talking to a very senior person at Google a decade ago. And this person said if you look for where the next trillion-dollar markets are going to be, robotics is the one.
At the time, Google actually assembled a few pieces that it would need to build a human robot. But the project failed and they disbanded, and they have a less ambitious project now. But I think that really gets to the heart of why these companies are interested.
The automobile market is around a $500 billion a year market in the US alone at the moment. Now, would people value a personal servant in their home more than they value their car? We simply don't know.
But it's not ridiculous to put these things on the same kind of scale. So, globally, this could end up being a market worth trillions of a year. And adaptable machine that can do just about anything a human could at least physically would have incredible uses. These sound like pie in the sky numbers. But long term, why not?
MATT WEBB: What makes me cautious about having a robot in the home right now is everything else that comes with. I'm not super comfortable about data being gathered in my home or the cameras, that would mean; or the internet connection. So having a robot in my home is good from a kind of a labour-saving perspective. But everything else that comes with, it gives me some pause.
MAJA PANTIC: I would definitely like to have one that would help me arrange my home. But more importantly, I think I would really love to have one of those robots to help my mum. My mum is old. And I think that it would be wonderful to have this kind of technology that could replace the need of her going to the elderly home because she doesn't want to do that.
And I just do not know whether we would have this soon enough. So we will see. And yeah, looking forward actually to it.
SARAH O'CONNOR: Would I have a robot like this in my home? I think I'd feel more comfortable if it didn't look anything like a human.
- There is no best robot, as each robot as its own unique capabilities and features.
WILL JACKSON: What's really going on here is we're looking at something that's a reflection of ourselves. And we look at it and we ask how is that different from me? It's this interest in the nature of what it is to be human. How is a machine different from me?