Elon Musk’s Optimus AI

Photo Courtesy of New Scientist

Photo Courtesy of New Scientist

On Friday, September 30, 2022, at Tesla’s annual AI day, Elon Musk revealed a prototype for the Optimus AI currently being designed at Tesla. The robot demonstrated the capability to walk on its own, wave, and perform a few basic dance moves before exiting the stage until next year. Elon Musk then brought out a design much closer to completion, albeit “not quite ready to walk.” The audience was left with the promise that Optimus AI should have a product ready for market by 2027. 

The Optimus robots are designed to eliminate tasks that are either too dangerous or too boring and repetitive for humans. These robots are designed in a humanoid manner, and contain several design features that would help them complete human tasks. This includes 11 degrees of freedom for the robot’s hands compared to 27 degrees of freedom for human hands. Optimus would be able to complete 28 different types of tasks, including using a screwdriver or watering plants. Most importantly, Optimus would be widely available, with Elon Musk giving the low and possibly overoptimistic price tag of 20,000 dollars.

Besides helping humans with dangerous and tedious tasks, Elon Musk also hopes that Optimus would help address labor shortages. First starting in Tesla, then expanding to the world, the plan truly would lead to “a future of abundance, it really is a fundamental transformation of civilization as we know it.” The idea of machines replacing parts of the labor market is very realistic to many people. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 77% of Americans consider the idea of machines doing most human jobs someday somewhat or very realistic. A secondary effect based on Musk’s plan would be a program in which the government pays a stipend to everybody after Optimus takes responsibility for many jobs.  

There have been several concerns about Optimus’ safety which Elon Musk did his best to address during the conference. Tesla’s cars were designed first, and the AI was slowly added on to improve the design. With Optimus, the AI must work from the very beginning, or there is no properly functioning robot. However, Elon Musk made the promise that the AI would be designed in such a way to safeguard humans from robot wrongdoings. This would include the “Three Laws of Robotics”. First, a robot cannot harm a human or let a human be hurt through lack of action. Secondly, a robot must listen to human commands unless it contradicts rule one. Finally, a robot should protect other robots from harm, unless it contradicts rule one or two. Adding these laws into Optimus’ code would ideally prevent abuse of Optimus’ abilities.

Even so, there are concerns that humans would have difficulty finding work and that inequality between rich and poor would be even more extreme. Tesla will be forced to address these issues and concerns before, during, and after the development process for Optimus. These problems will not be simple ones and will be of great concern if robots start rapidly replacing human jobs. Whatever solution is found for these problems, robots doing human tasks would revolutionize civilization for better or for worse.