Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and second richest person in the world, unveiled his idea for a robot on Thursday that he says might become a prototype by 2022. And while Musk has delivered plenty of hilarious vaporware presentations in the past, from the Loop to the Cybertruck, this one might take the cake.
Musk’s “robot” was just a person dancing around in a skintight full-body suit, but he promises that his electric car company really is working on something. And he really wants you to believe him this time.
“The Tesla bot will be real,” Musk said emphatically, trying to usher his fake robot off-stage on Thursday.
“Tesla is arguably the world’s biggest robotics company because our cars are like semi-sentient robots on wheels,” Musk said with a straight face.
Musk rattled off the specs of his completely imaginary creation and is positioning his robotic dream as the future of labor, something that makes sense when your work environment is notorious for verbal abuse and poor conditions. After all, robot workers don’t complain when you make them work in dangerous indoor spaces during a pandemic.
“So what happens when there is no shortage of labor? This is why I think long term that there will need to be universal basic income,” Musk said to applause from the crowd at Tesla’s AI Day.
“But not right now because this robot doesn’t work, so we just need a minute. I think especially in the future, physical work will be a choice. If you want to do it, you can, but you won’t need to do it,” Musk rambled on.
Gizmodo could tell you that Musk’s robot will stand 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weigh about 125 pounds. We could also tell you that it’s designed to eliminate dangerous, boring, and repetitive tasks, according to Musk. We could even tell you that it’s equipped with Tesla “Autopilot” cameras in the head and 40 actuators in the body. But that would be a waste of just about everyone’s time.
This isn’t even a prototype of something that might hit store shelves one day. It’s the promise of a prototype at some point in the future—arguably worse than regular vaporware. And you can watch the video for yourself if you’re curious.
What’s the point of unveiling something that will probably never happen? Whether it’s Musk’s robotaxis that were supposed to arrive by 2020, or solar roof tiles from 2016 that never came into being, the point of vaporware is to push a company into the headlines and sell more of the same shit they were selling before. Bored TV news outlets with 24 hours to fill get to wash a particular brand—and in this case the brand is Musk’s Tesla—in a hopeful and techno-utopian mystique. It also helps distract from negative news stories, like when your “Autopilot” product kills people.
But it would appear that Musk got exactly the kind of coverage he wanted overnight with this strange presentation that was livestreamed on YouTube. Just take a look at how Musk’s stories sounded in various news outlets.
Musk said the robot would have a “profound” impact on the economy. He said physical work would be a choice in the future, and a universal basic income would be needed. Musk is among the Silicon Valley leaders who have cautioned that technology may eliminate the jobs of many people, so some humans will need another income source.
Interestingly, Musk is imagining this as replacing much of the human drudge work that currently occupies so many people’s lives – not just labor but things like grocery shopping and other everyday tasks. He waxed about a future in which physical work would be a choice, with all the attendant implications that might mean for the economy.
The robot would carry out the work people don’t like to do. “It’s around 5 foot 8. It has sort of a screen where the head is for useful information, but it’s otherwise basically got the autopilot system and it’s got cameras, got eight cameras,” said Musk. “Full self-driving computer and making use of all of the same tools that were used in the car.”Musk mentioned the robot’s economic impact, using the current worker shortage as an example.
Every one of these stories could have appeared in newspapers of the 1950s and ‘60s with only minor changes. A universal basic income guaranteed to every worker because robots are taking their jobs? Check out this excerpt from an article in the November 26, 1967 edition of the Gastonia Gazette in North Carolina, emphasis ours:
Those who hunger for time off from work may take heart from the forecast of political scientist Sebastian de Grazia that the average work week, by the year 2000, will average 31 hours, and perhaps as few as 21. Twenty years later, on-the-job hours may have dwindled to 26, or even 16.
But what will people do with all that free time? The outlook may not be cheery.
As De Grazia sees it: “There is reason to fear, as some do, that free time, forced free time, will bring on the restless tick of boredom, idleness, immorality, and increased personal violence. If the cause is identified as automation and the preference for higher intelligence, nonautomated jobs may increase, but they will carry the stigma of stupidity. Men will prefer not to work rather than to accept them. Those who do accept will increasingly come to be a politically inferior class.”
One possible solution: a separation of income from work; perhaps a guaranteed annual wage to provide “the wherewithal for a life of leisure for all those who think they have the temperament.”
And there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of examples like this from mainstream commenters at the time. Even Walter Cronkite, the most respected newsman of his generation, was promising a, “30-hour work week and month-long vacations as the rule” by the year 2000. It was all thanks to our robot friends.
Sadly, if we want any of these robots to actually create less work for people we’d have to reorganize society completely. Because Musk’s old-fashioned promises could be a reality if politicians actually wanted them to be. Worker productivity is through the roof compared to the 1960s, but workers aren’t sharing in the wealth they create. The problem is that billionaires like Musk are keeping more of the profits. We didn’t get 30-hour work weeks because your boss has no incentive to pay you for working less. Your boss wants to squeeze as much work out of you as possible while paying you the absolute minimum. That’s the whole idea behind capitalism.
Curiously, Musk’s fake robot bears a striking resemblance to Miss Honeywell, another human dressed up to look like an automation in the 1960s.
Musk may not be always delivering humanity the future. But he’s got the retro-future theatrics down to a science.