Musk’s demo was bad, and he should be ashamed, and his cheering stans should be embarrassed

Yesterday was Elon Musk’s “AI Day”, and I don’t know whether to say it was a letdown, or that it was exactly what I expected.

The Optimus robot was not ready for prime time. Its motors worked: the curtains were pulled back, it took a few steps, it waved mechanically, it turned around, done. It did not interact with anything or anyone. It did not have to deal with any novel situations. It did not exhibit any behaviors beyond what you might get out of a Disney animatronic.

I’ve seen more impressive animated mannequins in the Christmas window displays at ZCMI in Salt Lake 25 years ago. Come on, guy, show me something that requires intelligence and flexibility on the robot’s part.

I guess I can call myself an artificial intelligence researcher now. When I was 13, a friend and I built a Frankenstein’s monster in my bed, which could sit up (with the aid of strings we pulled) and roar horribly (tape recorder in its chest) and best of all, spurt red blood when I pushed a button on a pump. We invited my siblings to witness our creation in a brief little skit and then chased them out of the room as the monster rose up.

Oh, what I could have accomplished with a bunch of actuator motors, some shiny strings of blinking lights, and a Raspberry Pi.

Musk also showed some videos of Optimus picking up boxes and of using a watering can to water some office plants. Very short videos. Again, nothing that demonstrated any artificial intelligence capabilities at all. He brought out a second robot that waved at the audience, and it wouldn’t be a Musk demo without some embarrassing gaffe.

Yet he was promising that a home robot would be available in a few years, that they were going to mass produce millions of them, and that they’d cost around $20K each.

Musk himself is a terrible showman. He mumbled and “ummm”ed his way through a poorly practiced, short speech that had no pizzaz — he relies on overpromising rather than actually expressing some genuine enthusiasm. He’s no Steve Jobs, who could get up and announce “one more thing” that was an overpriced watch and get people rushing to spend a thousand dollars on it. I’ve been coaching undergrads in making scientific presentations for the past few weeks, and they’ve been so much better than Musk — spontaneous, smooth, well-organized, and demonstrating some genuine passion for their projects. They actually rehearse what they’re going to say and are careful about being accurate. I’d suggest that maybe Elon Musk would do better to hire some UMM students fresh out of graduation, except that I hope to Dog that none of them ever end up in a job that requires them to go through the motions of empty hype and lie with more enthusiasm than their over-valued billionaire boss.


  1. wzrd1 says

    So, he’s reached the state of the art – of 30 years ago.
    Better than his 1970’s vintage neural interface, with a 1960’s infection rate.
    I wonder if he’s still using vacuum tube or is he highly advanced and using germanium transistors.

  2. stwriley says

    I’m the coach of my high school’s FIRST Robotics team and my kids can do way better than that on a much smaller budget. All Musk’s engineers have done is produce the same thing we do, a robot that can follow a set of pre-programmed actions with some adaptation to it’s surroundings. My guys have been working on machine learning to find target objects and manipulate them, which is pretty much all that AI can do right now. Musk should hire them if he really wants to get something done, since they seem to be miles ahead of his current employees.

    By the way, you might think that a guy like Musk would actually sponsor FIRST teams, since they’re doing the kind of work that he seems to think is so important (i.e., AI, adaptive robotics, self-driving “vehicles”) but I can’t find a single team that has either Space X or Tesla as a sponsor, much less having either of those companies sponsor the whole organization like a lot of other large tech companies do (and other car companies too.) But that might require Musk to part with some of his billions (or, honestly, only a few million) to actually help others, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  3. StevoR says

    Musk also showed some videos of Optimus picking up boxes and of using a watering can to water some office plants.

    Huh, mixing water and electricity with a new robot .. what could go wrong .. ;-)

  4. Jake Wildstrom says

    Yeah, human-shaped robots have seen extraordinary progress over the last 20 or so years… and this demo makes use of none of that progess. Look at Honda Asimo back in the early 2000s, and Boston Dynamics’s Atlas now — they were both frankly impressive designs of machines with necessary bipedal responsiveness to their environment, in the form of balance correction (balancing on two legs while in motion is really hard). Asimo moved like an arthritic waist-deep in quicksand, and infamously fell down stairs, but walking at all was an extraordinary achievement then, and it showed far greater sophistication than this two-decades-later mess. And as for the state of the art now… well, BD’s Atlas has mostly performed in canned videos where they can edit out any truly embarassing failures, but there have been a few live exhibitions where they’ve made clear it’s got solid ability to respond to environment and complicated terrain.

  5. says

    You know, spiders have an amazing ability to respond to their environment and extremely complex 3-dimensional terrain. Maybe I’m unimpressed because these robots are nowhere near as sophisticated as the swarm of animals I collected from my garage.

  6. muttpupdad says

    So he manage to duplicate the robot Elektro from the 1939 Worlds Fair, wonder what next great unveiling he will bring us from 80 years ago.

  7. robro says

    Jobs was a master at product announcement hype, from the bow-tie ads for Apple II to the Ridley Scot 1984 Super Bowl commercial, to the black pullover “One more thing” era. As you say, he could get people to pay premium prices for gear, and stand in line outside a store for hours for the privilege of being one of the first. But one of his basic tenets was “under promise, over deliver.” Musk does the opposite, constantly.

  8. JoeBuddha says

    50 year IT guy here, and my stepdaughter’s boyfriend taught robotics at UW and participated in the first DARPA self-driving car challenge. Whenever he sees the self-driving car articles, he just rolls his eyes. And, it seems to me that AI is better at defined problems than actual intelligence.

  9. says

    Given the track record of often fatal Tesla crashes on autopilot I don’t think I’ll buy one of his robots to clean house for granny any time soon.

  10. kome says

    The Musk-apologia I’ve been reading about this has been hilarious. Like, that dipshit nerd really has built a cult of fawning sycophants who insist that the emperor’s new clothes are dashing indeed.

  11. chrislawson says


    I remember being entranced when I saw a pair of assembly line robots programmed to perform a traditional Japanese dance. That was at the Brisbane Expo in 1988. You’re absolutely spot on with this demo being 30 years behind the curve.

    (Admittedly, the dancing robots were fixed to the floor and did not need to do any balancing, but walking is completely unnecessary for a robot unless they need to traverse wildly uneven ground, which is a tiny subset of the circumstances where a robot could be helpful.)

  12. hemidactylus says

    @5- StevoR
    I’m waiting for Musk to debut one just capable enough to turn on its creator publicly and prove him so ironically correct on the dangers of AI. Then we could be done with this onanistic ego stroking once and for all.

  13. hemidactylus says

    Come to think of it Musk should go to work on AI comedian Funnybot before the Germans get there first. He should debut it at an exclusive event with only his closest dudebro tech-dick friends. Awkward!!!!

  14. seachange says

    Hmm, those Tesla videos are sad looking.

    This is the only video I could find of an assembly line arm dancing

    From two years ago: Do you love me?

  15. says

    …wonder what next great unveiling he will bring us from 80 years ago.

    Ted Cassidy as Lurch the Butler repurposed to be a killer robot in Star Trek TOS?

  16. PaulBC says

    I have a friend who works in robotics and routinely shares robot demos on LinkedIn. Is Musk just entirely unaware of anything that happens outside his circle jerk?

  17. says

    I saw the Tesla robot on Imgur then someone put up the Boston Dynamics video that was put together from experiments going back 30 years. It seemed the Boston Dynamics robots passed right by Optimus around 2011 and the current one was truly unbelievable in what it was able to do.

  18. says

    PaulBC: Either he really is that clueless, or he’s counting on his fan-base to be that clueless. And quite frankly, it’s a sensible PR strategy, since most of us don’t really follow developments in robotics all that closely. It’s not like Musk will ever be expected to deliver an actual product that will be better than any of those previous demos. All he has to do is get his own name stuck onto the public’s concept of robotics, and they’ll keep on investing in him and/or mindlessly singing his praises no matter how lame any of his final products are.

  19. PaulBC says

    Jim Balter@23 I get that whatever Musk knows or does not just isn’t the point. On the other hand, given that he is insanely wealthy, why doesn’t he just buy out a team of the best robotics technologists in the world along with their latest work? It’d be cheaper than buying Twitter and he’d actually get an amazing demo.

    Is it purely ego? Musk farts and claims to have discovered a new biofuel. (Downside: cuts into his EV business.) Is the whole point just to see how gullible his fans are?

  20. says

    The issue here is that you wrote “Is Musk just entirely unaware of anything that happens outside his circle jerk?”, which was stupid and suffers from the problem I pointed out.

  21. PaulBC says

    Jim Balter@25 Sorry (not sorry) to have offended you with my stupidity. While you’re probably right, the reality is that neither of us is a mindreader. It was the first thing that popped into my head. I also think that in addition to be consciously manipulating his fan base, Musk also lives in a bubble of yes men.

    Sheesh. My common was innocuous. I also wasn’t claiming it as some kind of brilliant insight. More just another way of saying: Musk, what an asshole.

  22. StevoR says

    @20. markmckee :

    I saw the Tesla robot on Imgur then someone put up the Boston Dynamics video that was put together from experiments going back 30 years. It seemed the Boston Dynamics robots passed right by Optimus around 2011 and the current one was truly unbelievable in what it was able to do.

    This video here?

    Probly got it in reverse since the TV show was likely inspired by the Boston Dynamics ones but seeing that rather creeps me out after watching the “alien” robot dog “mechanicals”” as seen here in that SF horror 2019 contemporary British War of the Worlds redo series.

    See :