SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Tesla CEO Elon Musk blamed an overreliance on factory robots for sending the electric car maker into “production hell” four years ago, saying humans were better at certain jobs.
How my times have changed.
Texas-based Musk is now rolling out ambitious plans to deploy thousands of human-like robots, known as a Tesla Bot or Optimus, inside its factories, eventually expanding to millions around the world, according to the job openings. A person familiar with the matter said Buzz is building within the company as Tesla holds more internal meetings around bots.
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In the long run, Musk said at a TED Talk that robots could be used in homes, preparing dinner, mowing the lawn, caring for the elderly, and even becoming a “sex mate” or “sex writer.”
According to Musk, who is now touting the company’s vision far beyond the self-driving electric car industry, the value of the robotics business may ultimately be more than Tesla’s revenue.
On “Artificial Intelligence Day” on September 30, Musk said that Tesla will unveil a prototype of its Project Optimus, referring to the powerful and benevolent leader of the Autobots in the Transformers series. He said production could start next year.
Tesla is facing doubts about its ability to demonstrate technological advances that would justify the cost of “general purpose” robots in factories, homes and elsewhere, according to robotics experts, investors and analysts interviewed by Reuters.
Tesla already employs hundreds of robots designed for specific jobs to produce its cars.
Humanoid robots have been developed for decades by Honda Motor Co (7267.T) and Hyundai Motor Co.’s Boston Dynamics unit (005380.KS). Like self-driving cars, robots have trouble in unexpected situations. Read more
“Self-driving cars haven’t proven to be as easy as anyone thinks. It’s the same way with humanoid robots to some extent,” Sean Azimi, head of NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Team, told Reuters.
“If something unexpected happens, resilience and strength in the face of these kinds of changes is very difficult.”
At the “Autonomy” event in 2019, Musk promised one million automated cars by 2020, but he has not yet delivered such a car.
Experts say that Musk’s robots may be able to demonstrate basic abilities at the event, but they will be difficult to impress the public with people’s expectations of humanoid robots.
Nancy Cook, a professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University, said Tesla’s success would need to show robots doing multiple unwritten actions. Evidence like this could provide a boost to Tesla stock, which is down 25% from its 2021 peak.
“If you make the robot walk around, or make the robots dance, that’s already done. It’s not that impressive,” she said.
Tesla did not respond to a Reuters request for comment, but Musk has in the past proven skeptics wrong, launching the electric car market and founding a rocket company, SpaceX, even though some product launches were behind schedule.
Experience at home
Initially, Optimus will do boring or dangerous jobs, including moving parts around its plants, according to Musk.
Musk acknowledged that humanoid robots do not have enough intelligence to navigate the real world without explicit instructions.
But he said Tesla could leverage its expertise in artificial intelligence and key components to develop and produce smart, but less expensive, robots on a large scale.
Tesla is hiring a spree for people to work on two-pedal robots, with about 20 job openings on the “Tesla Bot” including jobs for designing key robot parts such as “actuators”.
“The code you will write will eventually run in millions of human-like robots around the world and will therefore be adhered to to high quality standards,” said one of the job postings.
Tesla has more than 2 million cars on the road.
The technology is now “starting to turn the corner,” said Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer of Agility Robotics, a humanoid robotics company founded in 2015.
“Certainly one of the important measures of success is do they make money out of it,” he told Reuters, referring to Tesla’s robotics efforts.
Analysts see pageant more than product. “It’s all part of distracting people and giving them the next shiny thing to chase,” said Sam Abu Alsameed, analyst at Guidehouse Insights.
“Investors aren’t excited about Optimus,” said Jane Munster, managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla stock. “It’s just such a low probability that it works at scale,” he said, noting that it’s “infinitely harder than self-driving cars.”
Then there is Musk’s own experience with robots in the factory.
During the 2018 production run, Musk specifically pointed to problems with the “fluff robot,” an assembly robot that failed to perform the simple tasks that human hands can do — picking up bits of “fluff” and placing them on batteries.
He said the cost of having technicians maintain the complex robot far exceeded the cost of hiring someone to do the assembly.
Robot fuzz “is a funny example but makes the point that autonomy often isn’t generalized well, so dealing with unpredictable soft materials like hard parts was a huge problem,” said Aaron Johnson, a mechanic and engineering professor at Carnegie. Mellon.
“Human hands are much better at doing this,” Musk said.
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Reporting from Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Peter Henderson, Ben Klayman and Lisa Schumaker
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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