Orphan Risks: Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot Raises Serious Concerns – But Probably Not the Ones You Think

Tesla Bot Close Up

Tesla aims to show off a prototype humanoid robot as soon as next year. Credit: Tesla

Elon Musk announced a humanoid robot designed to help with those repetitive, boring tasks people hate doing. Musk suggested it could run to the grocery store for you, but presumably it would handle any number of tasks involving manual labor.

Predictably, social media filled with references to a string of dystopian sci-fi movies about robots where everything goes horribly wrong.

As troubling as the robot futures in movies like I, Robot, The Terminator, and others are, it’s the underlying technologies of real humanoid robots – and the intent behind them – that should be cause for concern.

Musk’s robot is being developed by Tesla. It’s a seeming departure from the company’s car-making business, until you consider that Tesla isn’t a typical automotive manufacturer. The so-called “Tesla Bot” is a concept for a sleek, 125-pound humanlike robot that will incorporate Tesla’s automotive artificial intelligence and autopilot technologies to plan and follow routes, navigate traffic – in this case, pedestrians – and avoid obstacles.

Dystopian sci-fi overtones aside, the plan makes sense, albeit within Musk’s business strategy. The built environment is made by humans, for humans. And as Musk argued at the Tesla Bot’s announcement, successful advanced technologies are going to have to learn to navigate it in the same ways people do.

Tesla Bot

Initial plans call for the Tesla Bot to stand 5 feet, 8 inches and weigh 125 pounds. Credit: Tesla

Yet Tesla’s cars and robots are merely the visible products of a much broader plan aimed at creating a future where advanced technologies liberate humans from our biological roots by blending biology and technology. As a researcher who studies the ethical and socially responsible development and use of emerging technologies, I find that this plan raises concerns that transcend speculative sci-fi fears of super-smart robots.

A man with big plans

Self-driving cars, interplanetary rockets, and brain-machine interfaces are steps toward the future Musk envisions where technology is humanity’s savior. In this future, energy will be cheap, abundant and sustainable; people will work in harmony with intelligent machines and even merge with them; and humans will become an interplanetary species.

It’s a future that, judging by Musk’s various endeavors, will be built on a set of underlying interconnected technologies that include sensors, actuators, energy and data infrastructures, systems integration and substantial advances in computer power. Together, these make a formidable toolbox for creating transformative technologies.

Musk imagines humans ultimately transcending our evolutionary heritage through technologies that are beyond-human, or “super” human. But before technology can become superhuman, it first needs to be human – or at least be designed to thrive in a human-designed world.

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, in Musk’s words, “designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers” – in other words, people. In Musk’s telling, it’s a small step from human-inspired “robots on wheels” to humanlike robots on legs.

Easier said than done

Tesla’s “full self-driving” technology, which includes the dubiously named Autopilot, is a starting point for the developers of the Tesla Bot. Impressive as this technology is, it’s proving to be less than fully reliable. Crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla’s Autopilot mode – the latest having to do with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles — are calling into question the wisdom of releasing the tech into the wild so soon.

Tesla Autopilot Accident

A series of crashes involving Tesla’s autopilot technology has prompted a federal investigation. Credit: South Jordan Police Department

This track record doesn’t bode well for humanlike 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. For example, some Tesla drivers have treated their tech-enhanced cars as though they are fully autonomous vehicles and failed to pay sufficient attention to driving. Could something similar happen with the Tesla Bot?

Tesla Bot’s ‘orphan risks’

In my work on socially beneficial technology innovation, I’m especially interested in orphan risks – risks that are hard to quantify and easy to overlook and yet inevitably end up tripping up innovators. My colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and others on navigating these types of challenges through the Risk Innovation Nexus, an initiative of the Arizona State University Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and Global Futures Laboratory.

The Tesla Bot comes with a whole portfolio of orphan risks. These include possible threats to privacy and autonomy as the bot collects, shares and acts on potentially sensitive information; challenges associated with how people are likely to think about and respond to humanoid robots; potential misalignments between ethical or ideological perspectives – for example, in crime control or policing civil protests; and more. These are challenges that are rarely covered in the training that engineers receive, and yet overlooking them can spell disaster.

While the 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 about how it might threaten what’s important to them and how to navigate these threats.

These threats may be as specific as people making unauthorized modifications that increase the robot’s performance – making it move faster than its designers intended, for example – without thinking about the risks, or as general as the technology being weaponized in novel ways. They are also as subtle as how a humanoid robot could threaten job security, or how a robot that includes advanced surveillance systems could undermine privacy.

Then there are the challenges of technological bias that have been plaguing AI for some time, especially where it leads to learned behavior that turn out to be highly discriminatory. For example, AI algorithms have produced sexist and racist results.


MIT’s Joy Buolamwini explains the threat of bias in AI.

Just because we can, should we?

The Tesla Bot may seem like a small step toward Musk’s vision of 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, how responsible is Musk’s vision? 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 if things go wrong?

These are the deeper concerns that the Tesla Bot raises for me as someone who studies and writes about the future and how our actions impact it. 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. Used in the right way, these are transformative ideas and technologies that could open up a future full of promise for billions of people.

But if consumers, investors, and others are bedazzled by the glitz of new tech or dismissive of the hype and fail to see the bigger picture, society risks handing the future to wealthy innovators whose vision exceeds their understanding. If their visions of the future don’t align with what most people aspire to, or are catastrophically flawed, they are in danger of standing in the way of building a just and equitable future.

Maybe this is the abiding lesson from dystopian robot-future sci-fi movies that people should be taking away as the Tesla Bot moves from idea to reality — not the more obvious concerns of creating humanoid robots that run amok, but the far larger challenge of deciding who gets to imagine the future and be a part of building it.

Written by Andrew Maynard, Associate Dean, College of Global Futures, Arizona State University.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

12 Comments on "Orphan Risks: Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot Raises Serious Concerns – But Probably Not the Ones You Think"

  1. “… steps toward the future Musk envisions where technology is humanity’s savior.”

    As in, its necessary to destroy a village to save it?

  2. Artificial intelligence does does not make a construct human, an automaton is not human until such time as sentience is achieved. The robots decision to follow a path because it wants to rather than any algorithm that decides which path is the best, will be the deciding factor.

  3. There are some problems with technology and data collection/usage, warfare, etc.. it’s not just a problem with this upcoming robot like the article makes it seem.
    Also,
    “Impressive as this technology is, it’s proving to be less than fully reliable. Crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla’s Autopilot mode – the latest having to do with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles — are calling into question the wisdom of releasing the tech into the wild so soon.”
    I’m not a Mr. Musk shill I’m very critical in fact, but you are being paid to write garbage, you can count by your fingers those crashes and it was a result of human distraction, you also fail to highlight the many occasions where the car avoided crashes.

    “For example, AI algorithms have produced sexist and racist results.”
    STFU with that narrative, it’s important to take into account biases yes, but people just keep saying “sexist” and “racist” for everything.

    The whole argument of “orphan risks” it’s BS more than anything in the sense that it doesn’t give a compelling argument to claim this tesla bot is going to be more dangerous than current tech. Some tech and devices are already way more invasive that this robot will ever be.

    This robot will likely too constrained in gait, movement and dexterity to pose any threat, it isn’t even practical for most labor tasks.
    This robot will be mainly for marketing reasons more than anything, at least in a initial phase, it’s just a product everyone dreams to see working, they will never meet demand even if priced at like 50k. Then it will serve as data collection for the vision software, these algorithms are the real “threat”, if successful, other more functional robots will start to appear exponentially. By 2030 expect to see robots on the street, not necessarily humanoids.

  4. Yep. St Georges University’s famous screw up is a gteat example. Sounds easy, write a quick bit of code to look at previous successful job applicants to pre select applicants for interview.

    Net result: A list of white males for all the interviews.

    It’s reeeeally easy to say “how obvious”, they should have predicted that. But they didn’t, that’s the point.

    Nothing screws up like new tech. Forget version 1, or 2 or even 5, if there’s human safety or well being involved. Maybe 10 years down the line the tech will be safe, and humane. Not until.

    Until then… legislation, regulation, safety testing. That’s your safety net. It’s worked for aviation, pharmaceuticals, automotive, maritime and medicine. No reason not apply the same precautionary principles here.

  5. Yeah… The sexist/racist AI bit is just dumb. Isn’t it odd how wokeism and logic-based programming don’t coincide? If this were an informative article it’d be better, but who are you to say what any company should/not be working on? Crazy to me. If it’s not illegal, welcome to capitalism.

  6. He can’t even get auto pilot to be an actual auto pilot. It’s just cruise control that can steer.

    You think he can make a robot. Gonna be expensive robots if they are all people dressed in Lycra. Or cheap I guess based on how he treats his employees.

    Can we stop thinking this guy actually knows anything. The only thing he has accomplished is selling PayPal. Anything else is other people’s ideas he has put forward as his own and promised so many things and delivered barely anything.

  7. Their New World Order will be destroyed, along with their vaccines and robots.
    There will be arrests, trials and executions of the guilty by jury.

  8. The future has always been in the hands of visionaries and doers. And they have never been omniscient. We adjust to the mistakes of these doers as we go.

  9. Andrew Maynard and others like him should be “who gets to imagine the future and be a part of building it.” Obviously.

    Um… no.

  10. It’s too bad you didn’t listen to the entire presentation on AI day.

    Elon clearly said that the reason he wants to be the first to get a humanoid robot to the general public is because he wants to make sure that he is the one in charge of the tech, as he is well aware that others are trying to develop the same thing and not always for the benefit of humanity. There is no question that the war machines of the world governments would happily develop a robot to control humans. Tesla and Elon Musk are not interested in doing that. Elon is hyper aware of the danger of technology, especially AI, and talked extensively about how The robot prototype would not be able to overpower or outrun a normal human being.

    Ask for your comments about the self-driving technology, they are so one-sided and off-base that I almost didn’t read this article. Please do some serious research into the cause of the Tesla accidents and issue a correction on your statements. As another poster said clearly, it is obvious that the self-driving technology in the cars is saving many more lives than have been lost. There may be one or two incidents where the technology failed, but at the end of the day there’s always human error and arrogance involved in the deaths.

  11. Why can’t Elon use the genius brain he was given on truly complicated things that will have immense benefit to mankind like simulating the biological processes in the human body rather than trying to make a big splash with rockets and robots?

  12. Everybody talks about AI taking over, but Isaac Asimov already have us the answer to the Frankenstein’s Monster problem. The Three Laws of Robotics must be hardwired into every processor to check if any action or order will cause harm.

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