Should we be worried about Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot?
The newly-announced Tesla robot looks like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. But that’s the least of our problems.
It was, perhaps, inevitable: Elon Musk announces a humanoid robot designed to help with those repetitive, boring tasks we all hate doing, and all we can think about is a string of dystopian robot sci-fi movies where everything goes horribly wrong.
Yet troubling as the robot futures in movies like I Robot, The Terminator and others are, it’s the underlying technologies — and the intent behind them — that we should be more concerned about.
Musk’s robot is being developed by Tesla — a seeming-departure from the company’s car-making business — until you realize that Tesla isn’t your usual automotive manufacturer. The so-called “Tesla Bot” is a sleek 125 lb human-like robot that takes full advantage of Tesla’s AI and autopilot technologies to “eliminate dangerous, repetitive, boring tasks.”
It’ll be a while before prototypes hit the streets — the Bot is very much aspirational at this point — but the concept is already attracting parallels with robots-gone-bad tropes.
Despite the dystopian sci-fi overtones though, the plan makes sense — albeit in a very Elon Musk-esque way. The world we inhabit is built by humans, for humans. And — as Musk argues — any advanced tech that’s going to thrive in it, is going to have to learn to navigate it in the same ways we do.
This “make tech more human” approach to innovation is what’s underpinning the technologies in Tesla’s cars, including the extensive use of optical cameras. These, when connected to an AI “brain,” are intended to help the vehicles autonomously navigate road systems that are “designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers” (in other words, people).
In Musk’s imagination, it’s a small step from human-inspired “robots on wheels” to human-like robots on legs.
Yet Tesla’s cars and the robots are merely the visible products of a much more audacious plan. This is a plan that involves creating a future where advanced technologies liberate us from our biological roots. And it’s one that raises concerns that far transcend speculative sci-fi fears around super-smart robots.
Future tech in a world built by humans, for humans
Underneath the technological glitz of self-driving cars, interplanetary rockets, and brain-machine interfaces, Musk is a future-builder. And his ventures merely serve as steps on a journey toward the future he envisions.
This is a future where technology is humanity’s savior — one where energy is cheap, abundant, and sustainable; where we work in harmony with intelligent machines and even merge with them; and where we become an interplanetary species. And it’s a future that, in Musk’s mind, is built on a unique set of underlying cross-cutting technologies.
These cross-cut technologies include the sensors, the actuators, the energy and data infrastructures, the systems integration, and the sheer compute power, that set “Musk Industries” apart. Together, they form a formidable universal toolbox for creating transformative technologies that have the capacity to stay several steps ahead of the competition (and regulators) while ushering in a new world.
This is a world where Musk imagines us transcending our evolutionary heritage by partnering with technologies that are beyond-human, or “super” human. But before our tech can become superhuman, it first needs to be human — or at least, be designed to thrive in a human-designed world. And this is where the Tesla Bot, designed in Musk’s words for a “world built by humans for humans,” takes us one more step toward this vision of the future.
Just because we can, should we?
This may seem like a small step toward superhuman technologies, and one that’s easy to write off as little more than hubristic showmanship. But the audacious plans underpinning it are serious — and they raise equally serious questions.
For instance, there’s the question of how responsible Musk’s vision is. Just because he can work toward creating the future of his dreams, who’s to say that he should? Is the future that Musk is striving to bring about the best one for humankind, or even a good one? And who will suffer the consequences when things go wrong?
These are complex social challenges that are easy to miss in the hype surrounding technologies like the Tesla Bot. Yet they are critically important if we’re serious about building a just and equitable future.
There are, however, more tangible challenges presented by the Tesla Bot. And perhaps the most glaring of these is the full self-driving technology (FSD) that the Bot is based on.
Impressive as the underlying technology is behind Tesla’s FSD technology — which includes the dubiously-named autopilot tech — it’s proving to be more unreliable than I suspect Musk would like. A slew of crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla’s autopilot mode — the latest being associated with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles — are calling into question the wisdom of releasing the tech into the wild so soon.
This track record doesn’t bode well for human-like robots that rely on the same technology. Yet this isn’t just a case of getting the technology right. Tesla’s autopilot glitches are exacerbated by human behavior, with many Tesla drivers being all too keen to naively push the boundaries of their tech-enhanced cars.
The hard truth is that developing new technologies in socially responsible and beneficial ways means navigating an increasingly complex risk landscape where social and political awareness are paramount, and technological competency is often the least of a developer’s problems. And this is where innovative approaches to risk are needed if we want to see the social benefits of advanced technologies.
Tesla Bot’s Orphan Risks
In my work on socially beneficial technology innovation, I focus on orphan risks — risks that are hard to quantify and easy to ignore, and yet inevitably end up tripping innovators up if overlooked. And the Tesla Bot comes with a whole portfolio of orphan risks.
These include potential threats to privacy, autonomy, and identity; challenges associated with how people are likely to think about and respond to humanoid robots; potential misalignments between ethical or ideological perspectives; and many more. These are challenges that are rarely covered in the training that engineers and technologies receive, and yet in the increasingly complex world we’re building, overlooking them can spell disaster.
While Tesla Bot may seem benign, or even a bit of a joke, if it’s to be beneficial as well as commercially successful, its developers, investors, future consumers, and others, need to be asking tough questions around how it might threaten what’s important to them, and how to navigate these threats.
These may be as specific as hacks that increase performance without a thought to the risks, or as general as the technology being weaponized in novel ways. They are also as subtle as how a human-capable bot may threaten job security, or an all-seeing all-hearing robot could undermine privacy.
Then there are the challenges of technological bias that have been plaguing AI for some time, especially where it leads to leaned behaviors that turn out to be highly discriminatory. The last thing anyone wants is an army of racist, sexist Tesla Bots.
But complex as these threats are, they are manageable. What concerns me more is the threats represented by the technologies that underpin Tesla Bot and the visions behind them.
Elon Musk and other wealthy innovators have the vision, the resources, and the power, to alter the course of the future. But if their visions of the future don’t align with what most of us aspire to, or are catastrophically flawed, we have a problem.
These are risks that stretch far beyond the humble Tesla Bot. And they are risks that, if we are collectively committed to a vibrant future for all rather than just a few, we need to take seriously.
In our work on risk and innovation, my colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and others on navigating these types of challenges. And we start with three simple questions: What’s important to your enterprise, your investors, your customers, and the communities you touch? What orphan risks threaten these things of importance? And what small steps can you take to help navigate this complex risk landscape?
These are questions that Musk and his colleagues should be asking about the technologies they’re developing and the visions that they are pursuing. But they are also questions we should all be asking as powerful entrepreneurs strive to impose their visions of the future on us.
If we don’t ask them, there’s a danger that in a headlong rush into a technologically sophisticated future that’s being driven by a few powerful visionaries, we risk being robbed of the futures we aspire to.
These are the deeper concerns that the Tesla Bot raises for me as someone who studies the future and how our actions impact it. Of course, this is not to say that Tesla Bot isn’t a good idea, or that Elon Musk shouldn’t be able to flex his future-building muscles in this way. Used in the right way, these are transformative ideas and technologies that could open up a future full of promise for billions of people.
Yet if we become so enamored by the glitz of new tech that we fail to see the bigger picture, we risk handing our futures to innovators whose vision exceeds their understanding.
And maybe this is the abiding lesson from dystopian robot-future sci-fi movies that we should be taking away as the Tesla Bot moves from idea to reality — not the more obvious concerns of creating humanoid robots that run amuck, but the far larger challenge of deciding who gets to imagine the future, and be a part of sharing in building it?
A edited version of this article has been published in The Conversation.