Robots are hard: Tesla unveils its underwhelming first try at Optimus

Tesla debuted an actual, mechanical prototype of its Optimus robot on Tesla AI day 2022. The system has come a long way in just over a year.

Video Transcript

- At last year's Tesla AI Day, CEO Elon Musk ushered a person in a Spandex suit onto the stage and told us that it was a robot, or at least would, probably-- well, be one eventually. And when it is, it will revolutionize the economy by eliminating the limitation on capital. There's some such. I don't know, it's Elon. He says a lot of things. Like, how the Cybertruck will have unbreakable windows and that without labor costs.

ELON MUSK: It's not clear what an economy even means at that point. An economy becomes quasi-infinite.


- Now, the first Optimus, again, skinny guy in a leotard, not an actual machine, it debuted in August of last year. And true to form, Musk immediately proceeded to set out a series of increasingly incredible claims about what the platform's future capabilities would be. The Optimus will operate an AI similar to the company's autopilot system, you know, the one that keeps chasing stationary ambulances. And it will be capable of working safely around humans without extensive prior training, Musk said.

It will understand complex verbal commands and have human level hands. It'll both move at five miles an hour and carry up to 45 pounds, despite standing under six feet tall and weighing 125 pounds. Musk also claim that by 2022, Tesla would have an operational prototype ready to show.

Now, 13 months later Musk has made good on his word. In that, it is no longer a person in Spandex. Even as the developmental prototype plunged its way on stage, Musk had to caveat.

ELON MUSK: I do want to set some expectations with respect to our Optimus robot. As you know last year, it was just a person in a robot suit. But now, we've come a long way. Yeah, compared to that, it's going to be very impressive.

- To be fair, Friday night's demonstration was the first time that Optimus has been shown off in public as well as the first time that it's walked without the aid of a safety and control tether. Tesla also showed off a more completed version that includes body paneling, which the company hopes to be soon producing in the millions of units and selling for less than $20,000.

Of course, neither of which of these will win a back flipping contest against Atlas, beat Asmo out in a footrace, provide immediate utility like Spot does, or even conjure the same fuzzy feelings within our hearts as AIBO. In short, there everything Musk claim to and everything actual robotics researchers feared they'd be-- underwhelming.

ELON MUSK: Our goal is to make a useful humanoid robot as quickly as possible. And we've also designed it using the same discipline that we use in designing the car to make the robot in high volume at low cost with high reliability.

- The Optimus will be equipped with a 2.3-kilowatt hour battery pack, which apparently integrates the various power control systems into a single PCB. The Optimus will also be constructed from lightweight plastics and synthetics rather than dense metal to save mass and reduce systems complexity. That should be sufficient to get the robot through a full day of work, Tesla's onstage engineering team told the crowd.

- Humans are also pretty efficient at some things and not so efficient in other times. So on the robot platform, what we're going to do is we're going to minimize that idle power consumption, drop it as low as possible.

- The team also plans to strip as much mass as possible from the arms and legs of the robot.

- While we're going to reduce our part count and our power consumption of every element possible, we're going to do things like reduce the sensing in the wiring at our extremities.

- Tesla plans to adapt its existing autopilot driver assist software.

- We want to leverage both the autopilot hardware and the software for the humanoid platform. But because it's different in requirements and in form factor, it's going to do everything that a human brain does-- processing vision data, making split second decisions based on multiple sensory inputs, and also communications.

- Tesla executives showed off their vision of what the Optimus might do with its hands, and not just stick them in its pockets like the rest of us do.

- The human hand has the ability to move at 300 degrees per second. That's tens of thousands of tactile sensors. And it has the ability to grasp and manipulate almost every object in our daily lives. We were inspired by biology. We have five fingers and opposable thumb. Our fingers are driven by metallic tendons that are both flexible and strong. We have the ability to complete wide aperture power grasps, while also being optimized for precision gripping of small, thin, and delicate objects.

- Each hand will offer 11 degrees of freedom and be powered through a half dozen actuators in each appendage. They'll use nonback drivable finger joints that allow the robot to hold and carry objects without having to keep the actuators actively engaged.

- We start having something that's usable, but it's far from being useful. There's still a long and exciting road ahead of us.

- Now, how long that road will be is impossible to tell at this point. Beyond the roughly minute of on stage clapping and a handful of highly curated training video clips that made up its highlight reel, Tesla has told us very little about what the robot can do or how far along the platform and systems are in development. This lack of transparency and focus on hyping what the machine might be capable of in the future rather than what it can actually do now only serves to breed unreasonable expectations for not only Optimus, but for what the larger field of robotics is capable of. But then, again, grandiose claims are kind of Musk's thing.