Home » Tesla Wows The World With Humanoid Robot That Can Underwhelm With Superhuman Ability

Tesla Wows The World With Humanoid Robot That Can Underwhelm With Superhuman Ability

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Last Friday afternoon, Tesla held their AI day (hopefully everyone who was involved got to knock off afterwards and have a weekend) where the big news was the first actual showing of Telsa’s very hyped humanoid robot, which they call Optimus, after the noted spiritual leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. At least one somewhat functional robot was shown, and one sleeker one that did nothing but wave and, thanks to the help of three technicians surrounding it, not fall over. The responses to the robotics display were interesting, and the team at Tesla has absolutely come a long way since they paid some dude to dress up in a spandex robo-suit and dance around. That said, is what we saw worth all the hype? Let’s think about this.

First, if you’d really like to kill three hours, you can watch the whole AI day right here:

…but if you have other things going on in your life, we’ll just jump to the good roboty bits here. First off, people on Tesla’s robotics team gave an overview of the robot’s hardware and software, which all seems to be quite by-the-book for modern humanoid robot design. The first robot demonstrated was, as Tesla bot mechanical engineer told the audience before the robot came out, going to be operating for the first time without any backup support or umbilicals or support cranes, so I imagine the whole team was quite nervous.

I’m not sure why you’d choose to have the very first time to try something like this be in an extremely public test, but, well, I admire their fuck it, let’s do it attitude here. And, to their credit, nothing terrible happened as the robot demonstrated that it could walk just like you walked as a teenager when you were sneaking back home, long past your curfew, slowly and carefully:

This is their development robot, and as such lacks a lot of the body cladding and refinement seen on the other robot they showed, which is supposed to be closer to what the production robot would look like. Even though the development robot didn’t do all that much, the more sleek-looking other robot did significantly less:

This sleeker robot just waved, wore a Don’t Mess With Texas belt buckle, and made everyone around it nervous, sort of like your uncle from Plano at a wedding where he’s had way too much to drink.


Looking back at what was shown, there absolutely are some impressive things. With only around a year of development time to go from skinny guy in robot Halloween costume to (even slowly) walking humanoid robot is a big deal! The mechanical engineering team appears to be capable, and is showing they have the ability build a humanoid robot of some kind. But was anything genuinely new or innovative seen at this demonstration? No, not really.

You can’t look at these and not consider what else is going on in the humanoid robot world. Hyundai-owned Boston Dynamics, for example, has been showing wildly more impressive videos of their robots for years. This video of humanoid robots doing parkour is from last year, for example:

That’s a hell of a lot more impressive than tiptoeing around and waving.

It’s also worth remembering that carmakers have been making humanoid robots for a long time, and have been walking and running and doing much more impressive things years ago. Honda’s Asimo is one of the best known of these, as you can see in this video from 2014:

…and Toyota had one, too:

…and let’s not forget that GM sent a legless humanoid robot into space :

I bring all of these up to give some context to what we saw. If you’re going to make a big deal about a humanoid robot, you can’t ignore what’s come walking out before. But, we also have to be fair here: the Boston Dynamics robots are expensive, hydraulically-powered beasts that use a lot of energy and as a result aren’t really practical for mass-production or long-duration use.

And, those are the sorts of things Elon Musk is claiming that the Tesla robots will be: affordable (he said under $20,000, which, in humanoid robot terms is extremely affordable) and he said that these robots will be mass-produced and capable of doing a full day’s worth of work.

Robotics experts that weighed in on the demonstration seemed to have generally the same take-aways: what was seen was, you know, fine. But that’s it. Here’s a good summation from Christian Hubicki, Director of the Optimal Robotics Lab at Florida State University:

Not blown away, not laughing, either. Seems reasonable.

But the problem is that all of the crucial parts – the fact that the robots can be mass-produced, sold for under $20,000, can operate in a variety of environments and accomplish all sorts of tasks via Tesla’s powerful AI – is just talk, and nothing even close to any of these goals was demonstrated.


Sure, we saw some clips of the development robot doing some sorts of “work” (carrying a small box, watering plants) but even in these clips it was always with an umbilical (pointed out by the red arrows) and there’s no information regarding what exactly is happening in these clips, as far as the robot’s “brain” is concerned.


We’re just going on Elon’s word here, and, I have to be honest, his track record isn’t exactly great regarding these sorts of promises. There’s no $35,000 new Tesla, there’s no Roadster yet, there’s no Tesla Semi truck yet, there’s no real Hyperloop that can whisk you from city to city at incredible speeds, the Cybertruck isn’t available yet, and the promise of self-driving Robotaxis has been coming “next year” for the past nine years. I think his engineers and software developers are bright and hard-working, but that does not mean there’s any reason to believe any of the claims made during AI day, at least not without proof, of which there is currently none.

If Elon got up on stage and said “by the end of this year, you can spend six figures on a robot that can slowly and gingerly walk through your house and wave” I would absolutely believe him, because that capability has been well demonstrated. But everything else? Based on Elon’s track record, I’d counsel no one to undertake any breath holding.

Of course, that doesn’t deter Elon’s die-hard fans, who are if nothing else impressively robotic in their dedication to whatever the hell Elon says, responding to entirely valid criticisms with tweets like

I’m not sure what the fact that the robot “uses ML” (machine learning) really means when there’s zero actual evidence that it either does or that it somehow matters, at least not until it can be shown “using ML” to actually, you know, do something.

If some random guy “thinks” it’ll actually cost around $25,000, based on a complex series of ex recto calculations, is that good enough for you?

It’s still incredible to me to see the absolute, unquestioning support Musk is able to get, and the trains of thought this support leads to. Like this, which starts with general excitement and enthusiasm and then leads to some really incredible extrapolation:

So, Tesla robot is step one, step two is “…a future of abundance. There is no poverty.” I’m really going to need to see the work there, just something in that middle step that explains how buying $20,000 a pop robots that would replace a lot of human jobs is going to eliminate poverty. I mean, I’m all for it, I just wouldn’t mind having someone walk me through the details, you know, so I don’t seem stupid at parties when I’m being served canapés by one of these silver fellas.

There’s so much more counting of robotic chickens long, long before robotic eggs will be hatching:

Replacing all factory jobs in America? That’s a lot to get out of a demonstration of watering plants, but, sure, maybe!

Oh, even better, it’s only three to five years away! Someone remind me why anyone trusts any timeline given by Elon Musk, again? Imagine having the benefit of the doubt that Elon gets from his True Believers. It’s incredible! Look at this long-ass tweet that’s just a lot of wildly optimistic daydreaming about the Tesla bot without any evidence at all:

It’s not that I think conceptually these technological achievements are impossible – like all engineering problems, I’m sure there’s solutions to the demands of a general-use humanoid robot – but at this point, threads like these are just embarrassing fan fiction, and it’s a phenomenon seemingly unique to Tesla.

When Boston Dynamics shows their robots dancing or robbing vending machines or whatever, you don’t see these kinds of starry-eyed dreams of The Amazing World To Come like you see with Elon Musk or Tesla. It’s deeply strange.

Here’s the takeaway from all of this, as I see it: Tesla has built a humanoid robot, generally on par with what many other companies have been making, and it’s real, sure. I’m certain they’ll develop it even further!

But all of these claims that it’ll be cheap and work all day in any number of contexts and have powerful AI or ML or BS that will be able to figure how to do every job, anywhere, and free mankind from drudgery and poverty forever?

Come on. Get a grip, dummies.

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62 Responses

  1. One thing musk excels at is plunging ahead to make the theoretical practical at scale even if it’s not quite financially viable in the short term.

    Give the world cheap-ish generalized robots, and people will figure out what to do with them.

  2. “So, Tesla robot is step one, step two is “…a future of abundance. There is no poverty.” I’m really going to need to see the work there, just something in that middle step that explains how buying $20,000 a pop robots that would replace a lot of human jobs is going to eliminate poverty.”

    Right? This is the part that gets me. Best-case fantasy sci-fi miracle engineering scenario, this thing’s only reason to exist is to put millions of humans out of work. Elon’s been at war with his own labor force for years, this is his ultimate solution. In the long run it’s just about cutting costs, by eliminating those pesky, needy, willful, injury-prone, expensive human beings. It’s not just Tesla; every time I see a company proudly demonstrate a robot that can, like, flip burgers or whatever, I think the same thing.

    1. I have heard for YEARS how automation would make society better by freeing people from labor and distributing wealth. In reality it’s just a way to improve margins and keep more money. This utopian fantasy keeps being put out but never materializes.

    2. I’m no Musk-lover, but the idea that putting people out of work means universal poverty kind of shows a lack of imagination. People only have to work to support themselves because there’s not enough to go around. In a hypothetical economy where there is no more resource scarcity and plenty to go around whether people work or not, why should people have to work? If the economy runs itself without human input, why would that mean universal immiseration? Why not universal permanent vacation?

      To be clear, Tesla’s robot is not the key to unlocking a future of mandatory gay space communism. It’s not the key to anything. But the ideal of a post-scarcity society is, in my opinion, what we should all be working toward:

      1. You are right that a post-scarcity society isn’t unattainable. But presenting robots that can do all the work within the framework of unfettered capitalism isn’t heading toward the Star Trek ideal.
        The likely short-term result is demanding workers accept lower wages or be replaced by bots. Then wondering why no one can afford to buy the products. If we’re lucky, we figure that out before a lot of people die. More likely, massive revolt and a lot of death and disruption.

      2. Yeah, the problem is that there’s a few rich guys who lucked out early(1) and just use their money to get richer and screw over everyone else. It’d be cool if regular folks(2) could actually own the robots and stuff(3) but all the elites and rich techies(4) like it the way it is now ‘cos they get to help run the show.

        (1) capitalists
        (2) proletariats
        (3) means of production
        (4) bourgiosie

      3. I mean of course that’s possible, but have you met people? There’s absolutely enough to go around (of basic needs at least– food, shelter, clothing) that in theory, nobody who doesn’t want to work should have to TODAY, but that’s not how it works. Some people have more than they’ll ever need, a lot of people have nothing at all. Why would eliminating the need for labor suddenly convince the ownership class to start sharing? Are they going to pay $20,000 for a labor robot with the ultimate goal of giving away everything it produces for free? There’s a huge missing step between getting rid of all manual labor and Star Trek.

        1. Absolutely agree. I don’t see the difference between this and outsourcing manufacturing jobs to developing countries. At least with the outsourcing some people do come out of poverty in those countries.

          Maybe there is a possible utopia down this path, but the transition period would be absolutely grueling. Companies would use the lower production costs to increase their profit margins, while people lose jobs left and right. And much like communism, I am afraid the utopia part of the equation would keep slipping further and further away…

          1. Utopia doesn’t “slip away”.

            It’s always being pulled away by those in power because greed remains one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses.

        2. Neither of us are wrong, and I can see myself writing pretty much the exact same comment you did, on a different day. I guess I was feeling a little bit uncharacteristically optimistic

      4. Did you ask yourself whose economy it is?? It’s not like private ownership goes out the window, it just means the corporations make higher profits selling to those who still have a job. Do robots somehow mean governments now provide universal basic incomes so people can still buy things, or are you suggesting capitalism would end? Because I’m not quite certain how robots doing labor for private corporations would put money in unemployed people’s pockets.

        1. “Because I’m not quite certain how robots doing labor for private corporations would put money in unemployed people’s pockets.”

          Something about bootstraps no doubt.

  3. I really have to ask what functions a humanoid bot can do better than any other kind of automation. A counter server at Mcdonalds is more effectively replaced by those screens that they happen to already have. Watering plants can be done by an irrigation system for much less than $20k. A package delivery driver could be better automated by a roving cart that spawns from an autonomous van (or *gasp* a drone!). A welder in a factory is already a robotic arm bolted to the floot. And much studying has been done, and much money spent, to find where humans are the best solution in a factory.

    I’m sure every business with a factory would love a fully dark warehouse where robots whir and products come out the other end, perfect and good, but a walk through a trim shop and final assembly line of an automaker is a good example of why humans just WORK; Easily trainable, can easily swap jobs, can potentially improve the product, and when the mid-cycle refresh comes and you need to route the harness under this widget instead of over, it’s a single-day training. I don’t intend to be negative, but there’s a reason we have robotic arms and wheeled drones in our factories instead of Marvin and Bender.

    1. Well, the idea is that if you make a good enough humanoid robot it can do a good enough job at all kinds of different tasks, rather than just being limited to the one thing it was designed to do. Like, think of a butler instead of an automatic door. Both of them open the door for you, but only one of them can also pour you a glass of wine. Specialist robots will always have their place because specialists are generally better in their limited niches than generalists, but there’s a reason why overall, many of the most successful naturally-evolved species—including humans—are generalists.

      1. I am not a programmer nor am I a robotics specialist (I am a mechanical engineer). But a problem I see with that is that the robot still needs to be taught each thing individually. So instead of teaching an automatic door to open when the sensor sees a shape approximating a person, you have to teach the Teslabot what a door is, what a handle is, what kinds of handles it may encounter, what a handle looks like under low light or rain, how much force to give different kinds of doors, whether it opens inwards, outwards, or sidewards, etc… And THEN you get to pouring you a glass of wine. A generalist robot really is a lot of specialized bots put together (in theory).

        Machine learning can obviously simplify this, but if ML was a perfect method to teach a robot something, why can you fool a Tesla into stopping sooner by installing a bigger stop sign? This is assuming of course that Tesla’s AI people are talking to each other…

        1. Ah, but you see, it harnesses the power of AI and ML to magic up solutions and you don’t have to train it because you’ve already pocketed all the Saudi sovereign wealth money and retired to a bunker in New Zealand

          1. Perfect. That’s like my plan to create an asteroid mining company that consists entirely of one really good Powerpoint presentation, gather $5 billion in VC investment money, fail miserably, go bankrupt, and retire to Belize with the $50 million left over.

  4. My oldest friend in the world is currently an engineer at Boston Dynamics. Let’s just say he’s not losing any sleep over this thing. Also, by the way, nothing Boston Dynamics has is anywhere close to doing what Tesla says their robot will do. They’re way, way farther along, but there’s even farther to go before some kind of commercially marketable general-purpose robot servant becomes a thing.

  5. Yeah I believe they didn’t test the cybertrucks bulletproof windows but didn’t test the robot after that experience no. Yeah I know Elon never lies. Now can’t they hire a presenter and a script that doesn’t seem illiterate? Just hire an NFL guy. Apparently according to Musk the robot danced? Yes white guys rejoice we can finally buy a wingman that makes us look cool. Also that robot looks like he is either trying to keep from crapping his pants or just did it. Also why create a humanoid robot to do tasks already being done with mechanical automatrons?

    1. When they said “this is the first time it’s operated without a safety harness”, I assumed that meant that the engineers were no where near ready to show it yet, but Elon had proclaimed it would be there, so they probably had to pull all-nighters to get it done.

  6. I was, oddly, having a conversation about these robots on the weekend. And a friend of mine made a good point – we already have robots that are better, because they’re actually specialized. We don’t need Rosey the Robot, we have Roombas, basically.

    So, to look at the “replace all factory workers” guy: We have replaced factory workers where robots make sense, and those robots are designed for that purpose. This isn’t going to do anything better than the robots that are already real and in use even in a best-case scenario. And it’s probably not going to do anything better than the humans currently doing whatever job they’re doing.

    The robot is a thing that exists because Elon Musk got high and watched The Jetsons.

    1. Amusingly (to me) my buddy at Boston Dynamics also used to design Roombas. He has the patent on that rubber roller/beater thing that doesn’t trap as much pet hair as the usual bristle-type ones do.

    2. “I was, oddly, having a conversation about these robots on the weekend. And a friend of mine made a good point – we already have robots that are better, because they’re actually specialized. We don’t need Rosey the Robot, we have Roombas, basically.

      So, to look at the “replace all factory workers” guy: We have replaced factory workers where robots make sense, and those robots are designed for that purpose.”

      Maybe some factory workers have been replaced but there is still one HUGE area of labor ripe for replacement.
      One that would be best served with the most human appearing automatons:

      Sex workers!

      “This isn’t going to do anything better than the robots that are already real and in use even in a best-case scenario. And it’s probably not going to do anything better than the humans currently doing whatever job they’re doing.”

      Au contraire! Done right they will be able to satisfy any kink, be unable to pass along any disease, never get pregnant, never judge the customer, never cheat the boss (if rented), be available 24/7/365, be ruggedized for *special* requests and be trackable if they end up in a trunk. No messy morality issues, no “cheating”. Hell let the jealous wife or crazy GF shoot or stab the damn thing, it won’t care.

      Rosey the robot indeed!

          1. “One immediate thought: As we’re talking about computers here,privacy will be a gigantic issue.Ransomware attacks will skyrocket”

            Not necessarily. You can’t blackmail someone for having sex with a robot as there’s nothing (currently) illegal or immoral about it.

            If the threat is to immobilize the robot I think that threat is even less than that with cars, especially those with OnStar. Folks have cited concerns of hackers taking over cars for decades yet AFAIK nobody has been killed when a remote hacker cut the brakes or steered the car over a cliff.

  7. “So, Tesla robot is step one, step two is “…a future of abundance. There is no poverty.” I’m really going to need to see the work there, just something in that middle step that explains how buying $20,000 a pop robots that would replace a lot of human jobs is going to eliminate poverty. I mean, I’m all for it, I just wouldn’t mind having someone walk me through the details, you know, so I don’t seem stupid at parties when I’m being served canapés by one of these silver fellas.”

    Come on, man, don’t take this guy out of context. He didn’t say “no poverty” was step 2. He just glossed over a few of the more minor steps:

    1) Tesla robot
    2) Computer scientists produce perfect AI systems
    3) fusion energy production becomes widespread
    4) matter synthesizers are created (as in Star Trek and The Orville)
    5) The world government is formed and distributes fusion and matter synthesizing technology equitably to everyone worldwide.
    6) No need for anyone to work or produce anything. Your fusion-powered matter synthesizer can produce anything you need, including the latest model of the Tesla robot.
    7) Poverty is eliminated and world peace is achieved.

    But the IMPORTANT thing is it all started with the Tesla robot! And/or with John Lennon singing “Imagine”. Anti-Tesla Historians will debate the details, I suppose.

  8. As someone with who is friends with an engineer working on Tesla Bot, all I can say is the main objective of Tesla Bot is to replace the line workers in Tesla Factories. That’s the entire reason why Tesla Bot was dreamed up and why Elon wants this to happen so badly. He would be so much richer (lol greed) if he could just absorb all the profits saved from not having line workers and would be considered a “revolutionary genius” as sad as it seems.

  9. I think Elon’s stans are so in love with him because they are fully aware of just how low his abilities are – he is no smarter than they are. They can, not incorrectly, imagine themselves doing exactly what he is doing and becoming billionaires. Thus, an attack on Elon is an attack on them.
    Similar to Trump supporters: if a near illiterate asshole with no discernible skill can be a billionaire, they can too.
    They all somehow manage to ignore the fact that both fortunes were made with daddy’s money.

  10. Reading the list of things that he’s promised, but hasn’t delivered, Musk needs to get on Ritalin or figure out something that will allow him to focus his companies on only a few projects at a time.

  11. I think my favorite part is seeing all these Twitter threads justifying unrealistic Musk statements by making even LESS realistic assumptions to get there:
    “This goes back to point one above. Thr Atlas is designed to mimic what a human body can do at all cost. It’s big, bulky and extremely heavy at over 150kg.

    Teslabot needs to be small, efficient, do what needs done in the least amount of power ????. It’s only 73kg”
    In designing a humanoid robot capable of doing all sorts of work, Tesla is going to have a lighter, more efficient robot, because it doesn’t need to be able to do all the things Boston Dynamics is doing. For some reason. Musk is promising a MORE generalized robot that is somehow lighter, more efficient, and doesn’t need capabilities. I guess.

    1. ” It’s big, bulky and extremely heavy at over 150kg.”

      So, an average American then? 😛

      If history has shown us anything it’s that miniaturization will be part of the natural evolution of the technology. The hard part is getting it to work in the first place, which Atlas seems to be way ahead of the game on.

      1. Exactly. Musk is skipping several steps and promising something so far beyond reasonable belief, and the fans are mixing up the order of things. You need to make something work, then make it more efficient, then use those efficiency gains to shrink it. If you can’t do it in the first place, making it smaller and using lower amounts of power certainly won’t make it easier.
        Never mind the absurdity of assuming the Atlas must be heavy to mimic what humans can do, but the Teslabot can be lighter because it will simply be capable of nearly all human work. Y’know, the kind of work that would require doing what humans do.

  12. Definitely neat engineering,also almost definitely pointless.
    They’ll do odd jobs around your house and maybe some tasks outside(when protected from vandals).That’s it.
    It’s a toy

      1. But the autopian does! They posted about them, listen to this, giving away cars to the ragtag ucranian nazi army a few days ago! Hilarious!

    1. Oh yes, any time people do not fellate the great and mighty Musk, it is clearly a bot army. Nevermind the evidence that the biggest buyer and operator of shill accounts is… Elon Musk.

      Fuck off back to the lighting site, vatnik.

    1. Indeed.

      Regarding getting electric cars with long range available for sale at a semi-affordable cost, Tesla did in the 2010s what the mainstream automakers could have started doing in the 1990s. Without Tesla, we might not have EVs available on the mass market today, simply because until Tesla offered them for sale, the mainstream automakers had no incentive to do so(EVs threatened existing recurring sources of revenue), and no competition willing to do so.

      The technology was ready enough for niche market acceptance and even early-adopter interest no later than about 1998, which would have been enough potential sales volume to justify a mass production run to get the cost down to something that your well-off suburbanites could afford. The Solectria Sunrise was getting more than 200 miles range in real-world driving and set a range record of 373 miles at the Tour De Sol, and the designer, James Worden, claimed it would have been $20,000 car in mass production, as but one example.

  13. Ezer’s twitter feed on the differences between Tesla and BD can be summed up in one sentence…

    “Think of Boston Dynamics as a hardware company while Tesla is more software.”

    1. Which is so especially hilarious, because this (obviously falsely) implies that Boston Dynamics’ robots are so advanced they require absolutely no programming to operate and simply infer how to walk. Or that robots which are currently in mass production and are available for purchase with a variety of hardware and software options, are running on a 10 year out of support Debian distro maintained by the intern of the week.

      Oh wait. That’s Tesla’s software. And infrastructure.

  14. Musk has jump the shark. As he ages, he reveals himself as far less a visionary, and far more a greed-absorbed huckster.

    I wish he would retire to privately-owned SpaceX where he can forget about creating investor narratives and concentrate his energy to get Starship off the launch pad.

        1. I believe it’s Russian slang referring to people who believe their government. Not a positive term. No idea how it relates to Musk, Tesla or robots though.

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