February 26, 2024

Silicon Valley is racing to create the first generation of “humanoid” robots, with many tech companies promising consumers that they’ll soon have their very own, live-in robo-helper to do the dishes, sweep the floor, and generally take care of all the annoying housework that you don’t want to do. However, the unfortunate truth is that, if recent events are any indicator, we shouldn’t expect a robo-butler anytime soon.

The recent event I am referring to is this: Elon Musk shared a video on X over the weekend that appeared to show Tesla’s robot, “Optimus” (like the Transformer), folding a shirt. Musk seemed to hope people would be impressed with this display of automation but, personally, I was underwhelmed. After all, most people can fold shirts. I am terrible at doing laundry but am firmly confident that if called upon to engage in a shirt-folding contest with Optimus I would beat him handily. It made me wonder why someone like Musk would want to pour gargantuan amounts of money into creating a machine that can barely do a thing that everybody already knows how to do. Even worse, it turns out that Musk’s video was staged, although it’s not entirely clear how.

Musk followed up his original post with a clarification about the robot’s shirt-folding capabilities:

“Important note: Optimus cannot yet do this autonomously, but certainly will be able to do this fully autonomously and in an arbitrary environment (won’t require a fixed table with box that has only one shirt).”

While it’s not totally clear what Musk is talking about, it really makes it sound like the robot can’t actually fold a shirt yet. Or, at the very least, it needed some human assistance to do so.

Commenters on X responded to Musk’s video with a mix of admiration, bewilderment, and ridicule. Some were confused about how the video was made if the robot didn’t actually have this ability yet. One commenter quipped: “Yeah but my wife can do it while holding our baby and screaming on the phone at someone while eating lunch… can he?”

Since the Tesla bot was announced several years back, it’s been less a topic of speculation and excitement than laughter and ridicule. Indeed, the first glimpse of the “Tesla bot” that the world got was just a guy in a spandex suit. At that point in time, Tesla didn’t yet have a public-facing prototype ready, so Musk just sent some poor doofus out to a press event dressed like the Silver Surfer. Then, when a working prototype of the bot was finally unveiled at Tesla’s AI Day in 2022, it didn’t do much except stagger around and narrowly avoid face-planting in front of onlookers. Now, we know that it can fold a shirt. Well, sorta.

In short: While we keep hearing that the robot uprising is imminent, all visible evidence continues to point to the contrary—at least, for the time being.