Elon Musk to unveil first prototype of Tesla’s humanoid robot, Optimus

SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk wants to solve one of the toughest problems in robotics and artificial intelligence: a machine that can replace a human.

For years, companies including Amazon and Google have worked to create robots that are able to move and — in a feat that is deceptively challenging — pick up or work on items with mechanized claws or hands.

That holy grail of tech, which would allow companies to replace human workers with inexhaustible robots, has not been achieved. But Tesla CEO Musk has said he may demonstrate the company’s version, dubbed Optimus, at an AI event held by the company Friday evening.

Last year at the same event, Musk announced the robot. He said the cyborg would be friendly and uncombative, standing roughly 5-foot-8. It would be designed to help with repetitive, menial tasks — and usher in a future where physical work would be a choice.

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Critically, Musk said, a person could “run away from it and most likely overpower it.”

The Tesla bot is part of the company’s long-term effort to introduce a new era of automation, in which computer algorithms engage in human-like decision-making and advance their knowledge independent of human input.

As the country grapples with worker shortages that have left a huge percentage of manufacturing jobs unfilled, companies are dreaming up new ways to automate work previously performed by humans. The efforts have faced criticism from organized labor but have also garnered acceptance when they can improve worker safety and open up new opportunities.

A company cracking the code on humanoid robots would certainly be a groundbreaking — if controversial — advancement in the effort.

If it materializes, Optimus could initially disrupt manufacturing jobs that make up roughly 10 percent of US labor, or $500 billion in annual wages, Gene Munster, managing partner of Loup Ventures, wrote in an analysis.

“The global market for physical labor is many times larger than US manufacturing labor,” he added.

Still, Musk is notorious for overpromising, particularly on his timelines. Tesla announced its Cybertruck pickup with “unbreakable” windows that broke onstage when it demonstrated them in 2019.

The truck still has not been delivered. On Thursday, Musk tweeted that it would be “waterproof enough to serve briefly as a boat.”

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Tesla has said the robot could draw on the automaker’s Full Self-Driving computer, which helps power its driver-assistance system. Full Self-Driving offers a set of features that enable the car to maneuver without a driver’s input and is in beta testing in 160,000 vehicles on public roads. Tesla still says drivers must pay attention at all times.

Musk has said he fears artificial intelligence could one day outsmart humans and endanger us, citing AI as the biggest threat to civilization. But he said that by building the Tesla robot, the company could ensure it would be safe.

“We’re just obviously making the pieces that are needed for a useful humanoid robot, so I guess we should probably make it,” he said last year. “And if we don’t, someone else would. … I guess we should make it and make sure it’s safe.”

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Around that time, in response to an account purporting to be Optimus, Musk offered some friendly advice.

He tweeted: “pls be nice to the humans.”

Little is known about the bot or its capabilities, beyond what Tesla demonstrated at its presentation last year. The company said it could help with repetitive tasks such as working on cars or making trips to the store.

When it unveiled the concept last year, Tesla sent a human dressed as the cyborg onstage to perform robotic gestures followed by more complex dance moves — perhaps simulating the range of motion of an eventual Tesla Bot.

Google researchers are using results from large language models and AI studies to teach simple robots to make decisions and perform more complicated tasks. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Still, some expressed doubt that Tesla could build a functional — and capable — robot any time soon. Tesla’s demo didn’t show its technical capabilities so much as its ambition for the robot.

“This will be a key event for Musk to prove there is a strategic path on the Optimus front,” Dan Ives, an analyst for Wedbush Securities, wrote in a note aimed at investors ahead of the event.

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Musk, for his part, has tried to cool any major excitement about AI Day, tweeting Thursday that it will be “highly technical.”

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Tesla’s event Friday is likely to provide updates on milestones to other projects, such as Full Self-Driving, but the splashy invitation features robot hands in a heart shape, a sure nod to the cyborg.

Tesla’s AI Day, Battery Day and similar events are typically aimed at recruiting and drumming up fervor for its latest products. Still, Musk said, the presentation could prove alluring for those in the AI/robotics field.

“Engineers who understand what problems need to be solved will like what they see,” he tweeted.

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