Tesla wants to make humanoid robots. Here’s their competition.
From Boston Dynamics to Sophia, the robotics field has been teeming with new inventions, each of them both talented and flawed in their own ways.
During Tesla’s AI day last week, Elon Musk unmasked his next creation to come: “friendly” Tesla robots that can perform dangerous, repetitive, and boring tasks like fetching tools for repairs or getting groceries.
In the presentation, Musk explains how this robot is the natural evolution for the tech at Tesla. “Tesla is arguably the biggest robotics company because our cars are semi-sentient robots on wheels,” he boasts. It “makes sense,” he says, to put the cars’ self-driving capabilities and built in neural networks that understand and navigate the world around the car into a humanoid robot form.
The robot will supposedly stand 5’8” tall and weigh 125 pounds. It will be able to carry up to 45 pounds, deadlift up to 150 pounds, and move at a maximum speed of 5 mph. Musk assures the audience that this robot will be one that humans can run away from and overpower (if necessary). “Hopefully that doesn’t ever happen, but you never know,” he joked. The prototype is expected to come online sometime next year, and the company has put up an open call for team member applications.
Critics have issued their doubts about the practicality of Musk’s promise, citing the fact that several companies have already undertaken projects to build robots for mundane labor, and that Musk is severely underestimating the time and work it takes to construct and test even the simplest form of these machines.
Further dampening the hype for Musk’s robot is the fact that the self-driving system which powers Tesla’s cars, and theoretically would power this new robot, has recently been under federal investigation for crashing into emergency vehicles.
Taking into account that Musk is known for being a showman over being a realist, you probably shouldn’t hold your breath for him to deliver this promised product on time.
Musk is not alone in his ambitions. Many companies and universities have been working on robots that can take on human-supporting tasks, from monitoring health, to going on rescue missions, to just being a butler. But, there’s still a wide gap between the types of robot assistants portrayed in movies and TV versus what is possible right now with current research.
Here’s where some of the notable robots stand, and where they seem to be headed.
Boston Dynamics, arguably the leader in humanoid robotics, has been testing their tech for almost a decade. The company, previously owned by SoftBank, was acquired by Hyundai Motor Group in June. Their humanoid Atlas robots have undergone several trials to test their agility and motion in different environments. Atlas was first introduced to the public in 2013. Recently, the robot managed to master parkour. Atlas is just under five foot tall, weighs around 196 pounds, and can run at speeds up to 5.6 mph. These robots are still just for research and are not available commercially. However, one of their dog-like robots, Spot, is available for purchase at a ticket price of $74,500.
Agility Robotics has their own version of a humanoid work bot called Digit. In 2019, Agility Robotics teamed up with automaker Ford Motor to put Digit to work. Digit has working and adjustable arms and legs that helps it walk around, pick up objects and move them. It uses LiDAR and other sensors to navigate. Now, Ford is testing whether Digit in combination with Ford’s self-driving car can collaborate to make deliveries.
SoftBank’s Pepper, introduced in 2014, was one of the first social humanoid robots. At one point, it was available for purchase if you have $2,000 to spare. Pepper has the features of a small child, can mimic upper-body human movements, and can recognize human emotion and pick up non-verbal social cues, creating an illusion of understanding, or what some developers call artificial empathy. Despite stints at the Smithsonian and Buddhist temples, the production of Pepper was put on halt this year, reported The Verge.
Hanson Robotics is responsible for creating the uncannily human-like robot Sophia, which came on the scene in 2016. Reuters reported in January that the Hong Kong-based company would start mass-producing four robot models sometime this year, including Sophia. Founder David Hanson told Reuters that these robots could be helpful in healthcare, retail, and airline settings.
Even though not all humanoid robots can share the spotlight equally, some are good at specific tasks while others are important as proof-of-concepts. The neural network-run Japanese robot Altar is nothing more than a complex inflatable air dancer, but it provided an example of how coordination and moving in harmony with humans is not an easy thing to teach robots.
Stanford’s OceanOne diving robot was able to retrieve a vase from an underwater shipwreck, hypothetically reducing the need for people to go on dangerous diving missions. However, this aquatic humanoid diver still needs humans to direct it virtually. Samsung has been keen on making at-home robotic health aides. But in practice, these health-monitoring robots work less like Big Hero 6’s Baymax, and more like a Roomba with a Life Alert button.