Yesterday Tesla held a presentation called “AI Day” which was designed to highlight all of the work the company has done to make self-driving cars a reality. And near the end of the presentation Elon Musk introduced the companies plan to roll out a humanoid robot prototype sometime next year called Tesla Bot.
The first two hours of the presentation were a fairly detailed description of how the self-driving system for Tesla cars evolved from a simple, one-dimensional using camera snapshots to the current 4D system (3 dimensions plus time) that Tesla uses now to turn the real world into a “vector space” which the car can navigate safely. If you’re interested in that sort of thing you might enjoy it.
I was struck by one portion of the presentation where the engineers described how they gave the system a memory so that it could essentially remember where objects were even when they were occluded by other cars. Essentially, the early versions of the system were like a child playing peekaboo. If something was blocked from view, it didn’t exist until it reappeared. But the more advanced version of the system have the AI equivalent of object permanence, something that humans develop in their first year of life.
After all of the presentation about the AI system for Tesla cars, Elon Musk said that in his view Tesla was the most advanced, real-world AI company in the world, since it already has hundreds of thousands of cars out there that can self-navigate with a degree of intelligence.
“It kind of makes sense to put that onto a humanoid form,” Musk said. He added, “And we’re also quite good at sensors and batteries and actuators. So we think we’ll probably have a prototype sometime next year.”
Of course this is Elon Musk so the presentation quickly turned both comical and philosophical. “It’s intended to be friendly of course and navigate through a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks.”
“We’re setting it at a mechanical level, at a physical level you can run away from it,” he said to laughter. “And most likely overpower it,” he added. “So hopefully that doesn’t ever happen but you never know.”
At this point I’m sure Tesla corporate types were having heart palpitations but, frankly, this sort of thing is why Musk is interesting to listen to and nearly everyone else in a comparable position is not. Musk pointed out that the robot would use the same type of tech currently used in Tesla’s cars, just trained for different tasks.
“It should be able to, you know, please go to the store and get me the following groceries,” he said.
“This I think will be quite profound because if you say ‘what is the economy?’…at the foundation it is labor,” he said. He continued, “So what happens when there is no shortage of labor? This is why I think long term that there will need to be universal basic income, but not right now because this robot doesn’t work. We just need a minute.”
“Essentially in the future physical work will be a choice. If you want to do it you can but you won’t need to do it,” he said. Then he closed with an appeal, “Join our team and help build this.”
In a sense there’s nothing new about what Musk is saying. Science fiction has been telling stories about labor, the economy, class divisions and robots since Fritz Lang made Metropolis in 1927. What’s different now is that it really does seem as if a lot of the technology is on the cusp of being here in a way that it wasn’t before and Musk seems like the person who can bring it together.
Again, nearly all of this presentation yesterday was about the incredible development of the technology that already exists to drive the cars. Putting that same tech into an autonomous robot seems like a pretty obvious evolution at this point. The science fiction future is coming soon. Hopefully I’ll still be young enough to run away from it or overpower it if necessary.
Here’s the clip cued up to Musk’s announcement but skip back if you want to see all the work done on the self-driving system for Tesla’s cars.