March 4, 2024
Elon's Tesla robot is sort of 'ok' at folding laundry in pre-scripted demo

Elon Musk’s Optimus humanoid robot from Tesla is doing more stuff — this time folding a t-shirt on a table in a development facility. The robot looks to be fairly competent when it comes to this task, but moments after Musk shared the video, he also shared some follow-up information which definitely dampens some of the enthusiasm for the robot’s domestic feat.

First, I can definitely fold shirts faster than that. Second, Optimus wasn’t acting autonomously, which is obviously the end goal. Instead, the robot is here acting like a very expensive marionette, or at best a modern facsimile of the first rudimentary automotons, going through prescribed motions to accomplish its task. Musk said that eventually, it will “certainly be able to do this fully autonomously,” however, and without the highly artificial constraints in place for this demo, including the fixed height table and single article of clothing in the carefully placed basket.

Tesla has shown off a fair bit of technical wizardry with recent highlight reels released by the company, but the likely scenario is that all of these are highly scripted and pre-programmed activities that do more to show off the impressive functionality of the bot’s joints, servos and limbs than its artificial intelligence. Elon’s caveat, when considered for even a second, actually amounts to “all the very hard things will happen later.”

Not to knock the difficulty in creating a humanoid machine that can manipulate soft materials like clothing in a manner approximating human interaction with said objects; that’s some might fine animatronics work. But suggesting that this puts them anywhere near the realm where Optimus will be operating as a fully-functional domestic servant with all the capabilities of a human domestic worker it might replace would be like showing a video of a wooden marionette and adding ‘of course, this will be a real boy soon.’

Musk is famous for claiming that things are going to happen in a time frame that makes absolutely no sense, but his prediction of ‘within three to five years’ made at the bot prototype’s original unveiling last year (not counting the year before when it was just a guy in a suit) is laughable given its current state, and the current state of the art for robotics in general.

Tl;dr — don’t start reassigning your laundry folding time just yet.

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