Elon Musk wowed us by unexpectedly announcing the Tesla Bot, a humanoid robot that does your grocery shopping and may actually be for sale to the public eventually. We have robots already, but a humanoid one may have its niche.
What Is Tesla Bot?
Mr. Musk rolled out the Tesla Bot announcement at the Tesla AI Day event on August 19, 2021, using a human model wearing an outfit to resemble what Tesla Bot will look like. The details are, understandably, vague since this is a prototype the company is working on. However, Musk did say that it was a bipedal humanoid robot standing five feet and eight inches tall, weighing 125 pounds.
Tesla Bot has a screen for a face (think Daft Punk) and hands designed to be the equivalent of the average human’s. Tesla Bot is designed so that a human can outrun it and overpower it if necessary. That may sound like a strange thing to include when announcing a robot, but Musk has been famously skittish about artificial intelligence, so in that context, it makes sense.
Tesla Bot is meant to handle dangerous, boring, and repetitive tasks as a drop-in replacement for humans. Although it’s unclear just how well Tesla Bot will deal with such a job, what variety of tasks and contexts it will handle, and how much human assistance it will need.
The brain of Tesla Bot is the same custom machine-learning hardware and software you’ll find in the latest Tesla cars. Musk himself noted that Tesla cars are essentially autonomous robots on wheels, so branching out to other types of robots makes sense.
Why a Humanoid Robot?
There are essentially two justifications for a human-shaped robot. First, the world as it exists today is filled with equipment and spaces designed for human-shaped users. That’s us, in case you were wondering. Creating a robot that can slot into those parts of the world makes a lot of sense, especially in a household environment. Of course, your robot doesn’t have to be exactly human-shaped to take advantage of a world made for humans; it just needs to be in the same ballpark.
The second reason to make a robot humanoid has everything to do with us. Robots that have to interact with humans can benefit from being shaped like us. It may make communication better and make it easier to work side-by-side with us.
Our Homes are Already Automated
It happened sneakily, but there’s already quite a lot of automation that’s infiltrated our homes. We’ve got smart appliances stuffed into every corner. Fridges, dishwashers, televisions, thermostats, security cameras, and many more common tech items are hooked into the net and use advanced artificial intelligence to work.
Smart speakers, such as those from Google, Apple, and Amazon, already let us simply as for things and have them happen as if by magic. If you add all of these different forms of automation, don’t they add up to more than the sum of what a humanoid robot could do in the home?
A bipedal humanoid robot is, for most people, not a necessity. We have a wide array of affordable automation solutions to choose from, and the small amount of work left to us isn’t exactly a hardship.
That said, while we don’t think that a humanoid robot is as essential as a robotic vacuum cleaner or a smart thermostat, there’s definitely still a gap to be filled by something like Tesla Bot.
Tesla Bot’s Place in Our Homes
Right now, we don’t know what the exact capabilities of a platform like Tesla Bot will be at launch or how it will grow over time. However, assuming that it (and other robots like it) will eventually do the general “boring tasks,” as Musk puts it, where would these devices slot into current and future homes?
Think about your dishwasher, it’s an automated system for cleaning your dishes, but it still requires a human to load it and then unload and pack the dishes when it’s done. What about cooking? We’ve seen some impressive specialized kitchen robots over the years, but they can only do one narrow set of jobs no matter how well they work.
Tesla uses data from its fleet of cars to help the self-driving software learn and improve. This has been an effective strategy, and it seems the same approach will help Tesla Bot. If all Tesla Bots are learning as a collective, the repertoire of tasks the machine will eventually do could be immense.
There are also plenty of mechanical tasks that still require a human touch. If a Tesla Bot could be taught to wash windows, scrub a bath, or dust the ceiling corners of a room, there’s likely to be jubilation in the streets. You could build robots specialized in doing these jobs efficiently, but the nature of these tasks doesn’t make it economical.
Tesla Bot’s Place in Our Hearts
One place where a humanoid robot like Tesla Bot can outdo nearly all other designs is making a human connection with its users. Humanoid robots as companions, caretakers, child-minders, and hospitality machines make a lot of sense. In countries with aging populations, such as Japan, in-home caretaker robots do the necessary work that young people are unavailable or unwilling to do.
Whether Tesla Bot in particular never comes to market, was only a joke, or fails to live up to the hype, machines just like it are inevitable, and at some point, you’re going to face to faceplate with your plastic pal who’s fun to be with.