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What Do Robotics Experts Think Of Tesla’s Optimus Robot?

I’m not a robotics expert, so I’ve been particularly keen to hear what robotics experts think of Tesla’s Optimus presentation the other day. The core arguments from Elon Musk and many Tesla fans regarding why Optimus is such a big deal are: Tesla will find a way to mass produce it at relatively low cost, Tesla is adding a brain to the robot, and it needs to be in the form of a human so that it can perform tasks designed to be done by humans. I don’t see any strong arguments against those things, but I know they are broad-brushed claims and quite vague. What about the details that I can’t see, that a common Tesla fan can’t see, and that perhaps even an engineer working on Optimus can’t see?

Let’s start with Dennis Hong. Dennis is a professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering at UCLA. He’s Director of RoMeLa: Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory. With this title and being an independent expert in the separate world of academia, I was particularly interested to see his opinion. He was clearly excited as AI Day 2 arrived, but not in a sycophantic way. Luckily, he put his thoughts in a good little 13-post Twitter thread.

First of all, Dennis demonstrates his wisdom by acknowledging upfront what the event was about. It wasn’t about pumping up the stock (Tesla’s stock price typically drops after events like this), but rather about Tesla’s #1 challenge: attracting the best engineers in the world. Tesla does particularly well in this regard, often #1 or #2 on lists of top places engineers want to work, but that doesn’t mean attracting the best talent isn’t Tesla’s top challenge. From various public statements Elon Musk has made as well as private DMs to me, a couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that this is challenge #1 for Tesla. Dennis states, “The energy and excitement at AI Day2 was amazing. ‘AI day’ is actually a recruitment event, and in that sense I believe the event was a big success. It was also incredible to see all the new technologies Tesla has been working on including the Optimus humanoid robot prototype.” If Dennis thinks Tesla succeeded in its top aim for AI Day 2, I think that’s worth taking note of — maybe more than anything else in his thread.

Dennis also quickly addresses two of the top criticisms he had seen of the event. “I am aware of critics who say that the prototype had nothing new that they haven’t seen elsewhere, and that there are other more impressive humanoids. There are also people who have doubts on the aggressive timeline Elon had proposed, and I do not necessarily disagree with them.” I think those are the two biggest critiques I’ve seen. But I think they are the two biggest because they stuck, because they both have a bit of truth to them. It seems that’s Dennis Hong’s point here.

“That being said, I am a true believer of the future with humanoid robots and their eventual applications, that they will be used in our everyday lives ‘one day’ and make our lives better. And for that to happen, we need to start somewhere and project Optimus is just that.” That seems like a ringing endorsement. While he may not be onboard the train of Tesla fans who think Tesla robots are going to change the world by 2030, he does seem to think that the corporate foundation and atmosphere for developing robots at Tesla is the right one.

One of the lines that caught me the most in the whole presentation was from a Tesla engineer who said they had been working on the project for just ~8 months. That was shorter than I assumed, but I guess it took some time to bring the team together and set the stage for the project before jumping in. I don’t know what should be expected of a robotics team in 8 months, but Dennis seemed to be pleased with the progress. “What was most impressive to me was what the Optimus team was able to accomplish in such a short period of time. If you are in this field, you would agree, too. The prototype they have created will serve as an excellent beginning platform for them to learn from and to build upon.” Another top thing that caught my attention in the presentation was that Tesla plans to now start using Optimus in Tesla factories in order to continue its development. I think that’s a huge deal since it quickly gets the robot into testing and development in exactly the kind of setting it should be able to perform well in as an end product. Its progress will be built around a practical application where it will presumably become commercially viable. The fact that Tesla is jumping to that stage right after getting the robot to walk demonstrates how rapidly Elon Musk aims to get to commercial viability, and echoes how he has approached long-term goals at Tesla and SpaceX. Get the product out, get it to work, and improve it as quickly as possible based on real-world use.

But … Dennis Hong now expresses a disagreement in approach, particularly around mass production of Optimus. “However, one thing that I disagree with is their decision to mass produce the model shown at the event. I’m sure there are many good reasons behind it that I am not aware of, but I do not believe that is the one that can be used in a real world setting in any meaningful capacity.

“Though it may be used in a structured environment in a limited way (very simple tasks in a very carefully controlled factory maybe?) this particular model still lacks some of the fundamental technology for locomotion & manipulation needed for use in a general situation.”

In other words, this robot is not designed for widespread general AI tasks, and Tesla is jumping in too fast with this design.

Nonetheless, Professor Hong then puts a positive spin on it again. “Building a robot to be used in the real world is much more difficult than most may think. I do not believe we will have humanoid butler robots that can do our grocery shopping anytime soon. But starting with something much simpler, I am cautiously optimistic.

“I would say this is their good first step towards something big – if Tesla truly commits to put their resources, time & efforts into it long term. They have great engineers, & with the newly recruited talents, I am even more excited to see what they‘ll be able to accomplish next. […]

“There are a number of new companies popping up with the goal of building humanoids for real life use. Many of them are lead [sic] by people with incredible talents & expertise whom I have the highest respect for. Tesla will have some steep competition which I see only as a good thing.”

It appears that Professor Hong may well see himself in a competitor role with Tesla, but also that he believes any competition will bring out the best in the development process and that he’d be happier if Tesla achieved great success with its project sooner than later. “We will start to see a number of new humanoids from various groups (including ours) in the next decade or so, and I find this incredibly exciting. Though we have different approaches, priorities and scale, we welcome the friendly competition and potential future collaboration.”

We shall see.

It also appears that Professor Hong may have had and an advisory role at Tesla up until AI Day 2, or perhaps some other business arrangement or potential business arrangement. But that he has no official connections there now.

Other posts also indicate that Dennis had a team of students at AI Day 2

And that he had a ton of fun at the Tesla event.

By the way, congrats also to his 8th grade son on winning a serious robotics competition a week before AI Day 2.

Getting back to the details of the Tesla Bot, others have brought out further concerns/critiques of Tesla’s approach, some of which Dennis has agreed with.

In a related vein, but one with more of an “I’m not impressed” tinge to it, Evan Ackerman, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum who “has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology,” provided his overview take.

One thing I found interesting in his piece was that he highlighted a statement he made from right after the first AI Day that seems to have been spot on. He wrote, “It’s possible, even likely, that Tesla will build some sort of Tesla Bot by sometime next year, as Musk says. I think that it won’t look all that much like the concept images in this presentation. I think that it’ll be able to stand up, and perhaps walk. Maybe withstand a shove or two and do some basic object recognition and grasping. And I think after that, progress will be slow. But the hard part is not building a robot, it’s getting that robot to do useful stuff, and I think Musk is way out of his depth here.”

Regarding his core impressions after this event, he wrote, “While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the humanoid robot that Musk very briefly demonstrated on stage, there’s nothing uniquely right, either. We were hoping for (if not necessarily expecting) more from Tesla. And while the robot isn’t exactly a disappointment, there’s very little to suggest that it disrupts robotics the way that SpaceX did for rockets or Tesla did for electric cars.” He put that in more context later: “I’m reminded of the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, because many of the humanoid platforms looked similar to the way Tesla Bot looks. I guess there’s only so much you can do with a mostly naked electromechanical humanoid in terms of form factor, but at first glance there’s nothing particularly innovative or futuristic about Tesla’s design. If anything, the robot’s movement is not quite up to DRC standards, since it looks like it would have trouble with any kind of accidental contact or even a bit of non-level floor (and Musk suggested as much).”

Evan seemed mildly impressed by the pre-recorded plant watering, and even more so if the robot was using Tesla AI (based on Tesla’s FSD software) to perform the task, but he wasn’t ready to assume that was indeed how Optimus got the job done or that it didn’t take several attempts to film a successful watering session.

“The watering can was somewhat impressive, because gripping that narrow handle looks tricky.

“However, despite the added footage from the robot’s sensors we have no idea how this was actually done; whether it was autonomous or not; or how many tries it took to get right. There’s also a clip of a robot picking an object and attempting to place it in a bin, but the video cuts right before the placement is successful. This makes me think that we’re seeing carefully curated best-case scenarios for performance.”

Evan does acknowledge one of those core potential benefits I mentioned at the top that Tesla has in its approach and capability, but also tempers that hope/hype by noting that others may well be aiming for manufacturability and scale now too. “I generally agree with Musk here, in that historically, humanoid robots were not designed for manufacturability. This is changing, however, and I think that other companies likely have a head start over Tesla in manufacturability now. But it’s entirely possible that Tesla will be able to rapidly catch up if they’re able to leverage all that car building expertise into robot building somehow. It’s not a given that it’ll work that way, but it’s a good idea, potentially a big advantage.”

Again, this take seems not all that dissimilar from Dennis Hong’s in substance, just leaning more toward pessimism and critique than optimism (for Tesla) and hope. That said, on the historical timeframe presented at the event, Evan seemed even more impressed than Dennis Hong, or at least wanted to give more points to Tesla for this after all of the critique. “While the actual achievements here have been mercilessly overshadowed by the hype surrounding them, this is truly an astonishing amount of work to be done in such a short time, and Tesla’s robotics team should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. And while there will inevitably be comparisons to other companies with humanoid robots, it’s critical to remember the context here: Tesla has made this happen in something like eight months. It’s nuts.”

And, again, as far as the event being a recruiting tool, Evan assumes Tesla nailed it. “I can see the appeal of Tesla for someone who wants to start a robotics career, since you’d get to work on a rapidly evolving hardware platform backed by what I can only assume is virtually unlimited resources.”

Evan is also impressed by the goal of having the Tesla Bot run for a day or so on battery power (a key benefit Tesla fans have noted), but keeps the skeptical take by saying that we can’t count on that until Tesla demonstrates it. He is also happy about Tesla’s focus on robot safety, with some caveats. As far as the actuators that Tesla spent a lot of time talking about, “Tesla’s custom actuators seem very reasonable. Not special, particularly, but Tesla has to make its own actuators if it needs a lot of them, which it supposedly will. I’d expect these to be totally decent considering the level of mechanical expertise Tesla has, but as far as I can tell nothing here is crazy small or cheap or efficient or powerful or anything like that. And it’s very hard to tell from these slides and from the presentation just how well the actuators are going to work, especially for dynamic motions. The robot’s software has a lot of catching up to do first.”

That software bit at the end brings us to the last point I would highlight from this piece. Rather than praise Elon for the claim that Tesla Bot will be unique because it will have a brain, Evan took exception to that and wasn’t yet convinced it was very special. This was Elon Musk’s statement at AI Day 2: “You’ve all seen very impressive humanoid robot demonstrations, and that’s great, but what are they missing? They’re missing a brain—they don’t have the intelligence to navigate the world by themselves.” And this was Evan’s response: “I’m not exactly sure who Musk is throwing shade at, but there are only a couple of companies who’d probably qualify with ‘very impressive humanoid robot demonstrations.’ And those companies do, in fact, have robots that broadly have the kind of intelligence that allows them to navigate at least some of the world by themselves, much better than we have seen from Optimus at this point. If Musk is saying that those robots are insufficiently autonomous or world-aware, then okay, but so far Tesla has not done better, and doing better will be a lot of work.” The general assumption among Tesla fans, Elon included, seems to be that the AI Tesla is developing for Full Self Driving is vastly superior and much beyond anything being used or done at other companies, the most referenced of which is without a doubt Boston Dynamics. I think that’s a fair assessment, but how well FSD works and how much potential is there for humanoid robots is up for debate. Some may think that Tesla’s approach is less nuanced and accurate than needed, and that it cannot develop as fast or as smoothly as the Tesla team implies. Frankly, I don’t know, but I do lean toward thinking that Tesla has much more capability, potential capability, and likelihood of success here than others — especially thanks to its enormous resources, rapid and vast development under the Autopilot/FSD program, and talent attraction.

Oh, one more thing. I have noticed this as well in Tesla presentations and always wonder about the tradeoffs. Evan notes that some of the stuff Tesla presented on was very, very basic stuff. The thought was that it was seen as necessary for a general audience. However, it also seemed to be misleading if that was the audience since it was presented as though it was stuff Tesla discovered on its own. In any case, presenting very basic stuff at what is essentially a recruitment even for experts in the field seems odd. Here were Evan’s words on it: “The next part of the presentation focused on some motion planning and state estimation stuff that was very basic, as far as I could make out. There’s nothing wrong with the basics, but it’s slightly weird that Tesla spent so much time on this. I guess it’s important context for most of the people watching, but they sort of talked about it like they’d discovered how to do all of this stuff themselves, which I hope they didn’t, because again, very, very basic stuff that other humanoid robots have been doing for a very long time.”

 
 
 
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Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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