Elon Musk says Tesla robot will make physical work a ‘choice’

Will the just-announced Tesla Bot make future working optional for humans - or obsolete?
20 August 2021

A humanoid robot delivers drinks to customers at the Dawn Cafe in Tokyo. Will the just-announced Tesla Bot make future jobs optional for humans – or obsolete? (Photo by Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

After dominating the electric vehicle market and throwing his hat into the billionaire space race, Tesla boss Elon Musk announced the latest frontier he’s aiming to conquer — the humanoid robot. The irascible entrepreneur said during the company’s live-streamed AI Day event that he would have an initial prototype of an androgynous “Tesla Bot” by next year.

Based on the same technology as the Tesla semi-autonomous vehicles, the robot will be able to perform basic repetitive tasks with the aim of eliminating the need for people to handle dangerous or boring work, Musk said at an online event on Tesla’s advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

“Tesla is arguably the world’s biggest robotics company because cars are semi-sentient robots on wheels,” he said. “It kind of makes sense to put that into a humanoid form.”

Tesla’s touting of its automation technology comes as the carmaker faces increased scrutiny over its driver-assistance system, with safety regulators in the United States launching a probe after a series of crashes. “We urge you to swiftly open an investigation into Tesla’s repeated and overstated claims about their Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features and take appropriate enforcement action to prevent further injury or death as a result of any Tesla feature,” Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey wrote in a letter to US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, asking for a federal investigation to be opened.

The Autopilot system assists with steering and automatic braking and can be employed to help drivers navigate past slow cars, according to Tesla’s website, which says the system’s features “require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” However, the senators pointed to other Tesla marketing material that they said contradicted its disclaimer, sowing confusion and giving consumers false confidence in the system.

Tesla is accused of misleading motorists into believing the so-called Autopilot vehicles can drive themselves, though Musk has defended the system. The Autopilot controversy was not discussed at Thursday’s two and a half hour online conference, or brought up during questions from the audience.

Tesla robot to make future work optional, or obsolete?

Instead, Musk pledged that his future robot would be a benign presence. He said the Tesla Bot, which will have five-fingered hands and come in black and white, is intended to be “friendly” and built such that “you can run away from it and most likely overpower it.”

“Hopefully that won’t happen, but you never know,” he joked. Musk, the second richest person in the world according to Forbes, told the conference he believes robots will phase out physical labor for people. “I think essentially in the future, physical work will be a choice,” he said.

As CEO, Musk has transformed Tesla from a fledgling startup into a pacesetter in the electric car industry, with the company last month reporting its first-ever quarterly profit above US$1 billion on the back of record deliveries. His company SpaceX is also competing in the booming commercial aerospace market, while Starlink’s array of satellites is bringing high-speed broadband to rural corners of the earth, and Neuralink aims to develop brain implants to connect humans and computers.

But the self-described “Technoking” has also repeatedly clashed with regulators over everything from his use of social media to discuss Tesla’s operations to local coronavirus health protocols affecting his factories. The company has had a rocky record with its human workforce, including allegations of unfair labor practices and firing a union organizer.