Elon Musk was criticized last year for purporting to unveil an artificial intelligence-driven robot — only to present a human dressed as one for a buffoonish dance. On Friday, however, the project inched closer to reality with an actual demonstration.
The Tesla CEO revealed a humanoid machine, known as Optimus, at the company’s annual AI Day event this week in Palo Alto, California, according to The Times of London. He described it as the first step toward a “fundamental transformation of civilization as we know it,” before the robot waved at the crowd, raised its knees and walked off.
“This is literally the first time the robot has operated without a tether,” Musk told the cheering audience in Silicon Valley. “The robot can actually do a lot more than we just showed you. We just didn’t want it to fall on its face.”
Footage of the unveiling revealed Optimus as an apparent cable salad shielded by shiny coverings on its exterior. Musk said the prototype was a work in progress but added that it will be mass-marketed in three to five years and tested at Tesla’s car factories, according to the BBC.
Musk has previously proclaimed AI “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization,” and he reiterated Friday that artificial intelligence “affects public safety.” He said “the government” doesn’t understand this yet and promised “to be careful [not to] … go down the ‘Terminator’ path.”
The comment was a reference to filmmaker James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi thriller, which revolves around an AI system called Skynet that becomes self-aware and threatens the entirety of human civilization.
“Skynet” began trending on Twitter as users nervously discussed Musk’s latest project.
The 51-year-old billionaire said “millions” of these robots will be available for less than $20,000 each by the end of the decade. He added that this would irrevocably alter what it means to be human, as an economy is defined by the amount of people and their productivity — with Optimus tipping those scales.
“At the point at which there is not a limitation on [productive entities] … it’s not clear what an economy even means at that point,” Musk told the crowd. “An economy becomes quasi-infinite.”
Perhaps most fascinating or ominous of all, Musk said future versions of Optimus will be capable of having “quite natural” conversations with their owners and “can also be kind of like a friend and a buddy and hang out with you.” Currently, though, the robot relies on the some of the autopilot software that Tesla uses in its cars.
Musk is currently also working on a brain implant called Neuralink, which he said in 2020 could make human language obsolete in “five to 10 years.” While he’s promised a roster of fanciful projects in the past — from automated tunnel systems to colonies on Mars — Optimus appears to actually be in motion.