HUMAN-like robots have long been a fascination of many people, and numerous initiatives are under way. But creating a humanoid robot that can perform human tasks has proven incredibly difficult.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has improved dramatically over the years but does not have the general intelligence of a child.
Until now, robots have mostly been restricted to specific tasks in controlled environments, such as transporting goods on the factory floor, or autonomously vacuuming a home.
Tesla’s humanoid robot
It was, therefore, interesting when the South African-born entrepreneur, Elon Musk, recently announced at Tesla’s Artificial Intelligence Day in Palo Alto, California, that his electric car company is building a humanoid robot.
The robot will use some of the same AI technology as the driver-assisted Tesla vehicles, including its sensors and batteries.
Musk likes to position Tesla as the world leader in AI and, therefore, claims that Tesla is the world’s biggest robot component manufacturer because its electric cars are nothing else than semi-sentient robots on wheels.
The centre of this AI drive of Tesla is its own semi-conductor, the D1 chip, that contains the computing power of the best graphics chips and the flexibility of the best central processors. It is integrated with other computer chips and electronic components into Tesla’s training tile.
The Tesla robot will use the same computer chip, and navigate with eight cameras, not very different than Tesla’s self-driving vehicles.
Tesla is trainingt he robot’s Neural Network and is developing its AI capabilities.
The general purpose, bi-pedal, humanoid robot will be friendly and take over many of the dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks performed by humans.
The robot will make the life of people easier by doing many menial tasks or tasks that people like to do the least, such as fixing things and going to the store to buy groceries.
The life-like humanoid robot, or Tesla Bot, would take the drudgery out of our everyday life and free up people’s time.
Optimistically, Tesla expects a prototype of their humanoid robot to be ready by next year.
While talking about AI that is designed to mimic the way humans think, Musk remarked that “essentially, in the future, physical work will be a choice”.
According to Musk, Tesla’s robot could provide a solution to worker shortages in certain industries, especially in certain unpopular jobs.
Economists studied the long-term trends around automation in the workplace and discovered that the number of robots used worldwide increased by more than 300 percent over the past 20 years.
In 2019, the average robot density per 10 000 workers was 113 robots, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year.
According to the 2020 Industrial Robots report 2.7 million robots are working across the world.
Effect of Covid-19 on automation
Another interesting trend is that after millions of people all over the world lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of them were replaced by robots and AI as companies in survival mode struggled to avoid workplace infections of Covid-19.
The pandemic has created a strong enticement to automate work.
Suddenly, robots were cleaning floors at airports, monitoring the vital signs of Covid-19 infected people in hospital, preparing food, guarding malls and manufacturing a variety of products.
Chatbots replaced call-centre agents and robots meet guests and deliver towels in hotels (without requiring a tip).
They are even used to lay bricks –at 3 000 in an eight-hour day (10 times more than a human), plant seeds and harvest crops, pack pallets in food-processing facilities, and separate carcasses and breastbones in slaughterhouses.
Robots are also used in recycling plants to sort the waste, while a famous international bridal shop uses a chatbot to manage enquiries.
Worldwide, AI is increasingly introduced to review commercial loan agreements within seconds instead of months.
Microsoft replaced many journalists at MSN and Microsoft News with AI that can scan and process content.
Radio stations replaced DJs with technology and AI, while translations and transcriptions are done by AI at no cost.
Based on currents trends, it is estimated that robots could take over 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world by 2030.
If the figure is 30 percent higher, it is expected to boost the global gross domestic product (GDP) by about 5 percent, or $4.9 trillion (about R73.5 trillion) per year – roughly the projected GDP of Germany.
However, this is not new. Machines have made jobs obsolete for hundreds of years. Electronic exchanges replaced exchange operators, buttons replaced elevator operators, and online transactions replaced physical travel agencies, banks and shops.
However, the drive to replace people with machines that do not strike, require increases, fall ill, take leave, and have the additional benefit of lower operating costs, have accelerated exponentially.
Benefits and concerns
Although the rise of robots will bring numerous benefits, especially in terms of productivity, stability, and economic growth, there are concerns.
Musk is one of the innovative leaders who have more than once warned that technology may wipe out the jobs of many people, with the result that some humans will need to find alternative sources of income. It would have a profound impact on society and increase income inequality.
In the past, governments responded to technological change by investing in education. Unfortunately, the South African government and educational institutions mainly focus on only young workers instead of retraining employees.
The government will have to seriously prepare, reskill and retrain the most vulnerable workers for the era of massive automation. Lifelong learning has become more important than ever.
And for those who are not retrainable, they will probably have to consider some sort of universal income.
Musk and his humanoid robot
But let me get back to Musk and his humanoid robot. Musk is a great entrepreneur.
His incredibly innovative work at Tesla and SpaceX have disrupted the auto and space industries. But he has a track record of bold predictions that has not always come to fruition.
He is known for over-promising, announcing products that are merely prototypes, and missing deadlines. In November 2017, Musk introduced the Tesla Semi truck at an event near Los Angeles, but the vehicle has been delayed until next year, partly due to challenges to make larger battery cells.
Elon Musk often sells a vision even before it exists. But although the Tesla humanoid robot might sound like science fiction, if there is one person that can do it, it is Musk.
Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE