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Nobody is Taking Tesla AI Seriously Anymore

Tesla's "AI Day" presented reasonable discussion until the "robot" showed up

Recently, Tesla held its “AI Day.” Tesla often creates an event which highlights some aspect of their business that they want to promote to investors, customers, or to potential employees. Tesla has had “battery day” and “autonomy day” to promote Tesla efforts on those fronts. It is an attempt to keep excitement and exposure to a maximum during seasons when there are no big product reveals.

While Elon Musk is typically guilty of leading people on with extravagant (and unwarranted) claims about Tesla technology, these events have recently shown a more reserved side to Tesla’s front man. In “battery day,” he was expected to launch a million-mile battery, but instead talked mostly about getting access to the minerals needed for building batteries that are already available, as well as some manufacturing improvements. 

AI Day followed in this vein. Gone were the promises of Level 5 (or even Level 4) autonomy. Instead, there was a reasoned discussion of AI technology and technology problems. But then, the “robot” showed up.

The Tesla “robot” was simply an actor/dancer dressed up to look like a robot onstage. The goal was to present a vision for what Musk believes to be possible in the near term. Musk believes that by mounting the current Tesla vision computer on a humanoid form, he can achieve a general-purpose robot that does general tasks. He said that he hopes to have a prototype “by next year.” 

The problem is that there is nothing real about the robot. There is very little reason you can suppose that vision built for driving translates into vision for a robot walking around, much less what sort of tasks the robot should do. Musk says that he believes that this robot will be able to do machining tasks, but Tesla’s ability to get robots to do such tasks is historically abysmal.

In the development of the Model 3, Musk said that the key to profitability was to build the machine that makes the machine, and that he expected the factory to look like an “alien dreadnaught” when it was fully automated and running. However, it turned out this level of automation was outside of the company’s abilities, and the workflow switched to a largely manual, human-focused flow. It is unclear how Musk, who was unable to get robotic automation to work in his own factory doing highly-specific tasks, expects to build a “general-purpose” robot for general tasks.

Unlike previous years, where Musk has had a press willing to go along with whatever he happened to say, this time the press decided to take Musk to task for empty promises. The IEEE said, “Elon Musk Has No Idea What He’s Doing With Tesla Bot.” At TheDrive, the headline is “Human in Robot Costume Actually Good Metaphor for How Close Tesla Is to A.I.ArsTechnica, noting the similarity of the “sometime next year” timeline with other Musk claims about AI, says, “Tesla Bot is the company’s troubled Autopilot system in humanoid form.”

The Guardian, while giving Musk the benefit of the doubt in the headline, adds as a subtitle that reads “Billionaire Tesla chief gives no indication of any progress in actually building such a machine.” This basically sums it up. Musk has, again, promised vaporware. He wanted something impressive to talk about, and, rather than actually develop or invent something impressive, he opted simply to play make-believe. Thankfully, however, the industry is starting to take a more critical look at these claims and not just assume that Musk knows better than they do.


You may also wish to read:

Need Cash Fast? Just Pretend You Wrote Software. Tesla is not the first company to announce software it hasn’t written, but it is indeed the most brazen. Software engineers call imaginary products “vaporware.” And if the tag fits, it wouldn’t be the first time that Tesla has marketed an illusion. (Jonathan Bartlett)


Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Nobody is Taking Tesla AI Seriously Anymore