Why we should take Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot seriously

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Elon Musk announced a humanoid robot designed to assist with these repetitive, boring duties individuals hate doing. Musk urged it may run to the grocery retailer for you, however presumably it might deal with any variety of duties involving guide labor.

Predictably, social media full of references to a string of dystopian sci-fi motion pictures about robots the place all the things goes horribly mistaken.

As troubling because the robotic futures in motion pictures like I, Robot, The Terminator, and others are, it’s the underlying applied sciences of actual humanoid robots—and the intent behind them—that should be trigger for concern.

Musk’s robotic is being developed by Tesla. It’s a seeming departure from the corporate’s car-making enterprise, till you think about that Tesla isn’t a typical automotive producer. The so-called Tesla Bot is an idea for a modern, 125-pound humanlike robotic that can incorporate Tesla’s automotive synthetic intelligence and autopilot applied sciences to plan and comply with routes, navigate visitors—on this case, pedestrians—and keep away from obstacles.


Dystopian sci-fi overtones apart, the plan is sensible, albeit inside Musk’s enterprise technique. The constructed setting is made by people, for people. And as Musk argued on the Tesla Bot’s announcement, profitable superior applied sciences are going to should study to navigate it in the identical methods individuals do.

But Tesla’s automobiles and robots are merely the seen merchandise of a wider plan aimed toward making a future the place superior applied sciences liberate people from our organic roots by blending biology and technology. As a researcher who research the ethical and socially responsible development and use of emerging technologies, I discover that this plan raises considerations that transcend speculative sci-fi fears of supersmart robots.

A person with huge plans

Self-driving cars, interplanetary rockets, and brain-machine interfaces are steps towards the longer term Musk envisions the place expertise is humanity’s savior. On this future, energy will be cheap, abundant, and sustainable; individuals will work in concord with clever machines and even merge with them; and people will turn out to be an interplanetary species.

It’s a future that, judging by Musk’s varied endeavors, shall be constructed on a set of underlying interconnected applied sciences that embrace sensors, actuators, power and knowledge infrastructures, methods integration, and substantial advances in laptop energy. Collectively, these make a formidable toolbox for creating transformative applied sciences.

Musk imagines people in the end transcending our evolutionary heritage by way of applied sciences which are past human, or tremendoushuman. However earlier than expertise can turn out to be superhuman, it first must be human—or at the very least be designed to thrive in a human-designed world.

This make-tech-more-human method to innovation is what’s underpinning the applied sciences in Tesla’s automobiles, together with the in depth use of optical cameras. These, when related to an AI mind, are meant to assist the autos autonomously navigate street methods which are, in Musk’s phrases, “designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers“—in different phrases, individuals. In Musk’s telling, it’s a small step from human-inspired “robots on wheels” to humanlike robots on legs.


Simpler stated than carried out

Tesla’s “full self-driving” expertise, which incorporates the dubiously named Autopilot, is a place to begin for the builders of the Tesla Bot. Spectacular as this expertise is, it’s proving to be lower than absolutely dependable. Crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla’s Autopilot mode—the newest having to do with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles—are calling into query the knowledge of releasing the tech into the wild so quickly.

This monitor file doesn’t bode effectively for humanlike robots that depend on the identical expertise. But this isn’t only a case of getting the expertise proper. Tesla’s Autopilot glitches are exacerbated by human behavior. For instance, some Tesla drivers have handled their tech-enhanced automobiles as if they’re absolutely autonomous autos and didn’t pay ample consideration to driving. Might one thing related occur with the Tesla Bot?

Tesla Bot’s ‘orphan dangers’

In my work on socially helpful expertise innovation, I’m particularly thinking about orphan risks—dangers which are exhausting to quantify and straightforward to miss, and but inevitably find yourself tripping up innovators. My colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and others on navigating these kind of challenges by way of the Risk Innovation Nexus, an initiative of the Arizona State College Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and Global Futures Laboratory.

The Tesla Bot comes with a complete portfolio of orphan dangers. These embrace doable threats to privateness and autonomy because the bot collects, shares, and acts on doubtlessly delicate info; challenges related to how persons are seemingly to consider and reply to humanoid robots; potential misalignments between moral or ideological views—for instance, in crime management or policing civil protests; and extra. These are challenges which are hardly ever lined within the coaching that engineers obtain, and but overlooking them can spell disaster.

Whereas the Tesla Bot could appear benign—or even a bit of a joke—if it’s to be helpful in addition to commercially profitable, its builders, traders, future customers, and others must be asking powerful questions on the way it would possibly threaten what’s necessary to them and methods to navigate these threats.

These threats could also be as particular as individuals making unauthorized modifications that improve the robotic’s efficiency—making it transfer sooner than its designers meant, for instance—with out fascinated with the dangers, or as common because the expertise being weaponized in novel methods. They’re additionally as refined as how a humanoid robotic may threaten job safety, or how a robotic that features superior surveillance methods may undermine privateness.

Then there are the challenges of technological bias which have been plaguing AI for some time, particularly the place it results in discovered habits that grow to be extremely discriminatory. For instance, AI algorithms have produced sexist and racist outcomes.

Simply because we can, should we?

The Tesla Bot could seem to be a small step towards Musk’s imaginative and prescient of superhuman applied sciences, and one which’s straightforward to write down off as little greater than hubristic showmanship. However the audacious plans underpinning it are critical—they usually elevate equally critical questions.

For example, how accountable is Musk’s imaginative and prescient? Simply because he can work towards creating the way forward for his desires, who’s to say that he should? Is the longer term that Musk is striving to result in one of the best one for humankind, or perhaps a good one? And who will undergo the results if issues go mistaken?

These are the deeper considerations that the Tesla Bot raises for me, as somebody who studies and writes about the future and how our actions impact it. This isn’t to say that Tesla Bot isn’t a good suggestion, or that Elon Musk shouldn’t be capable of flex his future-building muscle tissue. Utilized in the appropriate approach, these are transformative concepts and applied sciences that might open up a future filled with promise for billions of individuals.

But when customers, traders, and others are bedazzled by the glitz of latest tech or dismissive of the hype and fail to spot the larger image, society dangers handing the longer term to rich innovators whose imaginative and prescient exceeds their understanding. If their visions of the longer term don’t align with what most individuals aspire to, or are catastrophically flawed, they’re at risk of standing in the best way of constructing a simply and equitable future.


Possibly that is the abiding lesson from dystopian robot-futuristic sci-fi motion pictures that folks should take away, because the Tesla Bot strikes from thought to actuality—not the extra apparent considerations of making humanoid robots that run amok, however the far bigger problem of deciding who will get to think about the longer term and be part of constructing it.

Andrew Maynard is affiliate dean on the School of World Futures, Arizona State College. This text is republished from The Conversation underneath a Artistic Commons license. Learn the original article.