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Tesla says it is building a ‘friendly’ robot that will perform menial tasks, won’t fight back

Tesla CEO Elon Musk took the stage to tout the company’s automation ambitions Thursday — days after investigators said they would look into the company’s Autopilot driver-assistance system

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk took the stage at the company’s AI Day on Thursday to debut the “Tesla Bot” concept. Tesla said it plans to unveil a prototype of the humanoid robot next year. (Tesla)

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla has a history of making big promises. But its newest one is just average size, about 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds, according to CEO and self-professed “Technoking” Elon Musk.

Tesla says it plans to build a humanoid robot to perform basic tasks, such as wrenching on cars or making grocery runs. It’s part of the company’s broader ambitions in automation, which include building its own computer chip, dubbed the D1, to power the networks for vehicles it hopes to one day make self-driving.

Tesla previewed the robot concept at a presentation at its Fremont, Calif., factory Thursday, calling it the “Tesla Bot” and “Optimus,” and said it would show a prototype next year. As part of the presentation, a human dressed as the machine made robotic gestures and then danced onstage, perhaps demonstrating the range of motion that Tesla hopes the bot could achieve. Musk was quick to clarify that the dancer was not a real robot.

The company touted hardware such as its Full Self-Driving computer and computer chips, which it said could be integrated into the robot. It said the robot would also be outfitted with a screen and Tesla’s Autopilot system, consisting of eight cameras.

Tesla’s driver-assistance systems have come under scrutiny recently from industry rivals and federal safety investigators concerned about their rapid deployment on public roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started an investigation last week into Tesla’s driver-assistance suite, known as Autopilot, following nearly a dozen crashes involving parked emergency vehicles. Musk has expressed confidence, however, that Tesla’s cars will one day be able to drive themselves.

“We have almost all the pieces needed for humanoid robots, since we already make robots with wheels,” Musk said on Twitter shortly after the presentation, referring to Tesla’s cars.

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Musk, acknowledging the concept was in its very early stages, said the robots would have a personality of their own.

“It’s intended to be friendly, of course,” he said, “and navigate through a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks.”

He said humans need to be prepared for robots to perform menial tasks and ultimately work alongside them — if not phase them out of the workplace.

“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.

Tesla has had a contentious relationship with its factory workforce at times, including findings that it violated labor rules in the past, and reports that it called employees back to work during coronavirus shutdowns and terminated them for not reporting to the factory line during the pandemic. The company’s efforts to automate tasks have sometimes been too rapid, forcing it to backtrack and reintegrate people into the process.

Tesla’s robot mock-up showed a white-clad humanoid outfitted with sensors. It would be “built by humans, for humans,” according to the presentation. The robot could dead lift up to 150 pounds and travel at 5 mph.

“We’re setting it so that it is at a mechanical and physical level you can run away from it and most likely overpower it,” Musk clarified.

Musk has been wary of the potential of artificial intelligence to outsmart humans, even citing it as the biggest threat to civilization.

He said Tesla had decided to put its resources into what it believed would be an emerging field of technology.

“The robot is not prompted specifically by manufacturing needs. It’s just that we’re just obviously making the pieces that are needed for a useful humanoid robot so I guess we probably should make it,” he said. “And if we don’t someone else would. … I guess we should make it and make sure it’s safe.”

Tesla has a history of exaggerating timelines and overpromising at its product unveilings and investor presentations. The company unveiled its Cybertruck electric pickup in November 2019, though it recently acknowledged that the vehicle would not be delivered until 2022 at the earliest. The company also held a “Battery Day” event last year to debut its next-generation battery cell, which was to be included in its top-of-the-line Model S Plaid-Plus edition.

Earlier this year, however, Tesla announced it was canceling the Model S Plaid-Plus and delivered the Model S Plaid without the new battery.

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Musk said Tesla’s robot might be called on to perform tasks such as driving a bolt into equipment using a wrench.

“This is why I think long term there will need to be universal basic income,” he said, “but not right now because this robot doesn’t work.”

“Join our team and help build this,” he added.