When it comes to presentations, Elon Musk rarely disappoints his audience. And this was certainly the case with this week’s AI Day. He made a variety of announcements, such as for a new 7 nm semiconductor, the Dojo supercomputer and innovations with computer vision. There were also some deep dives into deep learning.
But perhaps the most interesting announcement was the Tesla Bot. This is on par with what we usually see on dazzling sci-fi movies. Yes, Musk apparently is building a humanoid robot. It will be five feet, eight inches tall, weigh 125 pounds and have human-like hands. What will she/he/it do? Basically, the Tesla Bot will be our cyber slave, handling tedious and repetitive tasks. For example, you can tell it to go to Chipotle and get a burrito—and it will happen.
Sounds pretty good, huh? Definitely.
But then again, over the years Musk has made some ambitious claims that have not been realized (remember his promises of fully autonomous cars or his robot taxi service?) And this could easily be the case again.
The funny thing is that Musk has a history of saying that AI could run amok and become an existential threat to humanity. Hey, he once tweeted: “If you’re not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk(y) than North Korea.”
But somehow, Musk thinks his version of AI will be just fine. We just have to trust him on this one, regardless of the federal preliminary investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot and the various lawsuits. Actually, even if the Tesla Bot somehow turns hostile, it will only be able to run five miles an hour.
Yet Musk’s Tesla has some big advantages to be successful in building the Tesla Bot. At the conference, he noted: “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.”
But there is good amount of irony here. Musk’s demo of his Tesla Bot was actually a person in a white spandex outfit and a black mask. He or she looked more like a go-go dancer.
Now if the CEO of Ford or GM tried this stunt, he or she would have been laughed out of the room and mocked savagely on social media channels. It would be a downright embarrassment.
Even if Musk may be overly optimistic on the timeline for humanoid robots, it does seem like we could see some true breakthroughs during the next decade. And the impact on the world will be significant. “These systems could be used to aid human labor in hazardous areas like mining and manufacturing, reducing overall safety incidents and saving lives,” said Michael Levy, who is a Senior Analyst at Harbor Research.
But the bots could also mean having to rethink some of the core fundamentals of society. In other words, what will “work” really mean and what will become of capitalism?
“Elon Musk touched on it and I agree,” said Dr. Jesper Dramsch, who is a machine learning expert and works at the ECMWF. “A lot of physical work will be optional. Tasks like shelf-stocking may be completely obsolete. As a society this means we have to move away from the concept that we trade our time directly for income and seriously consider universal basic income and social structures that go beyond the scarcity economy of pure capitalism.”
Tom (@ttaulli) is an advisor/board member to startups and the author of Artificial Intelligence Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction, The Robotic Process Automation Handbook: A Guide to Implementing RPA Systems and Implementing AI Systems: Transform Your Business in 6 Steps. He also has developed various online courses, such as for the COBOL.