Robot reality: Tesla faces tough task with humanoid robot

Tesla humanoid robot
A humanoid robot like the Tesla Bot isn't a new idea. Sarcos Robotics pursued the concept long before it worked on robotic exoskeletons.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said his company plans to build a humanoid robot, leveraging its learnings from developing AI-based self-navigation for autonomous vehicles. As a way of explaining why this might be a natural move for Tesla, Musk declared that his firm is “arguably the world’s biggest robotics company.”

That may come as a surprise to observers that thought Tesla was a car company, but Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO of Sarcos Robotics, a robotics company that has been around since the 1980s, thinks Musk is right.

“I think Elon Musk is miraculous when it comes to identifying opportunities, and I think he’s spot on about Tesla being a robotics company,” Wolff said.

Sarcos is well aware of the challenges Tesla might face because Sarcos worked on creating humanoid robots for a time back in the 1990s. “The intelligence and the algorithms that were necessary to create a humanoid robot were not there yet,” Wolff said, but he added that there are other challenges to creating the type of robot Tesla talked about.

For the last several years, Sarcos has been focused on developing robotic exoskeletons, such as its Guardian XO, and robots that can be controlled by human users (It also has received some attention for developing exoskeleton “Iron Man suits” for the U.S. military.) “Tesla is talking about a humanoid robot operated by artificial intelligence,” Wolff said. “Our exoskeleton is in effect a humanoid robot operated by human intelligence.”

Sarcos last week demonstrated its work in this arena with its first field demonstrations of its Guardian XT robot, which is essentially the top half of its XO exoskeleton controlled remotely by a human operator. In the long-term future, Sarcos does plan to have an AI platform it can overlay on its robots to relieve humans of some of the control capabilities. “We do have a plan to make these machines smarter over time,” Wolff said.

While Wolff agrees with Musk that there are some underlying similarities between autonomous vehicles and other types of robotic systems, and that some technology can be carried over, self-navigating humanoid robots with some artificial intelligence would have many more variables to contend with than autonomous vehicles do. 

“With self-driving cars you can program them with algorithms to follow the rules of the road, and what to do in given situations,” he said. “There’s a constrained set of variables. With a humanoid robot there are many more variables. It needs to sense literally billions of data points and be able to respond to those in real time. For that you need massive compute power, and it would require massive power consumption. How do you power something like this?”

Tesla also will need to confront a question that persistently has hounded other robotics companies over the years: To what degree will robots displace humans in the workforce?

In unveiling plans for the Tesla Bot, Musk appeared to envision a humanoid robot that would need enough intelligence to self-navigate, but ultimately would be aimed at repetitive and tedious tasks -- perhaps helping to build Tesla cars on the assembly line or carrying bags for human owners. Much about Tesla’s plan remains vague, but Musk positioned the robot as assisting humans.

Yet, in the current moment, the old question about robots displacing humans may be less controversial than it once was. Wolff pointed out that there aren’t enough workers for many job segments, and that “in the future there will be some robots that are well-suited to replace humans in the workforce, and some robots that are well-suited to augment what humans are doing.”

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