Elon Musk’s Tesla robot isn’t as stupid as you might think

When looking at Tesla’s debut with its Optimus humanoid robot at AI Day 2022, it’s entirely fair to be skeptical of the company’s grand plans. The robot’s shuffling gait was tiring compared to Boston Dynamics’ exciting parkour and Atlas flips, and Tesla missed many deadlines by bringing its full self-driving technology to his cars.

But I was at the AI ​​Day event and I’m here to warn you not to ignore Tesla’s science fiction-inspired vision.

The company has revealed abundant evidence that it is thinking deeply about a bipedal robot and the AI ​​technology needed to make it useful. And much of Tesla’s track record of authentic accomplishments in electric vehicle engineering and manufacturing applies to Optimus.

The non-Tesla robotics and artificial intelligence experts I spoke to at the event were impressed by Optimus, the code name for the Tesla robot. And Tesla engineers had that kind of fire in their bellies that bodes well for progress, especially when supported by CEO Elon Musk’s vision and Tesla’s resources.

“I haven’t worked that hard since graduate school. But I love it,” said a senior chip designer working on Tesla’s Dojo technology to train the AI ​​systems behind Optimus’ ability to navigate rooms and FSD technology. of Tesla to drive cars. He was not authorized to speak to the media.


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Seeing the Tesla Bot firsthand was impressive

I too was impressed, compared to last year, when Tesla debuted with Optimus as a few presentation slides accompanied by a human dancer in a robot costume.

I didn’t cheer and cheer like many of the more than 1,000 people crammed into a huge workshop at Tesla’s Palo Alto, California offices when the first Tesla Bot walked across the stage. I appreciated the engineering achievement when I saw the computer-controlled biped pivoting at the waist without tipping over, powered by a computer on the chest, moved by a collection of glittering cylindrical actuators, studded with status LEDs and wired with a copper nervous system. I heard its cooling fans blow and, afterwards, struggled to lift the 42-pound block of copper and electronics that make up every 25-processor Dojo AI training card.

It is still unclear whether humanoid robots will one day make our purchases or take the place of the hard-working humans on production lines, as Musk predicts. The controversial and outspoken billionaire estimates it will be three to five years before the first Optimus goes on sale, an eternity in the world of technology. But if his vision is true, it could signal a transformation of the world as profound as the car or the smartphone.

“We wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the main share price driver towards the end of the decade,” New Street Research analyst Pierre Ferragu said in a report Monday. “Imagine Optimus as a startup today: it could be valued several billion dollars, maybe even a few tens.”

To be sure, there is a long journey from prototype to product, as AI Day attendees were reminded when they saw a Tesla Semi and cyber trucktwo vehicles they have missing initial shipping dates.

While Tesla’s ability to realize his robotic vision is even more outstanding, I would recommend not canceling the project simply as Musk’s utopian fantasy. Here because.

Give Musk credit for creating nerd heaven

Musk has a talent for selecting tough but achievable companies, finding engineers who rise to the challenge, and providing them with an environment in which they expect to make a difference.

One who works at SpaceX, which has rocked the missile business in the same way Tesla is rocking the auto industry, said rivals have tried to recruit it several times. They would be comfortable jobs, he told her, but in practice she wouldn’t be able to do anything there. She was not authorized to speak to the media.

We could spend a lot of money on laptops and smartphones, but Musk is looking for new horizons. “You definitely want to see what’s happening with Optimus, while a lot of other technologies are stabilized in some way,” Musk said at the AI ​​Day event.

That message resonated with an engineer I spoke to at AI Day who is working on actuators, a key mechanism that moves Optimus’ torso, legs, arms and fingers. Previously, he worked at Boeing, but sees robotics as a new wave of innovation.

AI Day 2022 is explicitly set up as a recruiting event for engineers. One I spoke to, who works for a direct Tesla rival, showed up due to a recruiting email. Another working on surgical robots was clearly impressed with the breadth and funding of Tesla’s work in the area. Nobody laughed at Tesla’s Optimus.

Tesla Bot represents thorough research

On the AI ​​Day stage, a pre-Optimus prototype called Bumble-C shuffled, waved, waved his arms and flexed at the waist. It wasn’t spectacular by some standards, but it was also the result of less than a year of work. A slew of engineers shared the stage with Musk to detail the research conducted so far on Optimus. Between them:

  • Tesla is designing its own actuators, closely spaced sets of gears, motors, sensors, and controls that act like human muscles. The company is drawing on the team that already designs the power units of Tesla cars. At AI Day, engineers showed Tesla’s calculations on how he settled on a collection of six actuators for the entire robot that best optimize cost, ease of manufacture, speed, torque, mass and efficiency.
  • Tesla is drawing lessons from human anatomy, for example, by employing a complex four-bar hinging mechanism similar to the human knee that adapts an actuator’s varying strength or speed requirements depending on how bent the knee is.
  • Tesla is using the same AI technology behind FSD to drive Optimus as well. This includes the occupation network, an artificial intelligence system that converts camera input data into a 3D map of everything around a robot.
  • Tesla is building its own custom data center technology, Dojo, to train the multiple artificial intelligence systems that go into a vehicle or robot. So far, Tesla has built three cabinets of Dojo hardware and can already handle video training data in ways impossible with the previous approach using Nvidia’s 72 high-end A100 processors.
  • For locomotion, Optimus combines a physical model that simulates a virtual robot with real-world sensor data that measures the actual performance of the robot. Walking technology has become more sophisticated: the first steps were in February; Optimus’s pelvis began to swing in July; the movement of the swinging arm that accompanies his steps starting from August; and Optimus’ toes lifted off the ground for the first time in September.

“The Tesla team is so advanced and so confident in its pace of innovation that it doesn’t bother sharing the details of what it does,” Ferragu said.

AI is mandatory on Optimus

Optimus faces a challenge Tesla cars don’t face: it requires AI for everything it does. Tesla can build a successful business by selling industry-leading electric vehicles driven entirely by humans, then gradually develop autonomous vehicle technology.

A view of a Tesla's navigation screen while using the company's FSD driver assistance software

Tesla in September expanded the beta test of FSD, its software designed to eventually lead to self-driving cars. 160,000 people in the United States and Canada have access, CEO Elon Musk said.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

With humanoid robots, AI has to work from the start. And the AI ​​challenge is more difficult with robots.

A quick introduction to today’s AI technology: Instead of programming computers with strict if-this-then instructions, AI works by training a system to recognize patterns in large amounts of real-world data. This allows artificial intelligence systems to handle much more complexity and make more nuanced decisions.

The difficult thing is that self-driving cars encounter a huge variety of situations. Even the same road intersection can be very different if it is raining, under construction or blocked by a stationary car.

According to a Tesla AI Day engineer, Tesla is investing heavily to overcome these challenges, absorbing 100 terabytes of video data reported by its cars every day. It also simulates various conditions to extend AI training situations beyond real-world data.

But the variety of situations robots could encounter is much wider. Think how different a house is from the one next door. So compare those homes to businesses, sidewalks, and farms.

However, Tesla’s robot demonstration videos were set in a relatively narrow domain: his offices and research labs. And Musk said the company plans to test them in its own “giant factories” first. This could provide enough training data to give the robots a useful foothold.

Why build the Optimus robot?

Musk offered a somewhat obscure rationale as to why build Optimus. SpaceX’s job is to get humanity to Mars and electric vehicles and Tesla batteries need to rid us of fossil fuels. Musk’s explanation for Optimus seemed more opportunistic: Tesla has the experience, so he might as well.

Musk hopes that Optimus will “help millions of people” by freeing humans from boring, dangerous and repetitive jobs. In his most starry moment, he said robots could lead to “a future of abundance, a future where there is no poverty, where people can have whatever they want in terms of products and services. It’s truly a transformation. fundamental of civilization as we know it “.

I wouldn’t expect poverty to end anytime soon. But today’s Optimus is making great strides, literally and figuratively, since its debut last year just as an idea.

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