May 24, 2024

Elon Musk became the butt of more than a few jokes after internet users pointed out Tesla’s robot demo wasn’t all it appeared to be. As it turns out, a video the billionaire posted of Optimus, the company’s much-hyped humanoid robot, was actually being controlled by a human slightly off-screen. And it’s interesting to see robot manufacturers now include assurances in their videos that they’re not doing the same deceptive magic trick as Musk.

First, a quick lesson in recent history if you’re not familiar with the story. Musk has been hyping up Optimus recently, pledging that Tesla would eventually deliver an amazing new robot that people would buy in stores. He first announced his robot in the summer of 2021, but it was just someone literally dressed in a robot costume.

Musk often posts videos of Optimus, but they’ve been underwhelming, to say the least. Finally, when Musk posted a video back in January of Optimus folding a shirt, eagle-eyed viewers noticed a hand that kept slipping into frame, clearly showing someone was actually operating the robot.

A video released by Elon Musk in January, with a red arrow annotation showing the teleoperator of the robot
Gif: Tesla / Gizmodo

The technique here is called “teleoperation,” and has been used in robotics since the 1940s. Essentially someone moves their own hand and the robot mimics the movement. It’s cool for mid-20th-century tech, but it’s not the kind of autonomous robot movements that people here in the 21st century expect for cutting-edge and futuristic products.

And all of that brings us to an interesting phenomenon we’re starting to see in the wake of Musk getting embarrassed by his robot fakery. Robot companies are now including notices when they post new demo videos that make it clear the machine is operating autonomously.

One example is a new video from Chinese robot maker Astribot. The company posted a new video this week, available on YouTube, showing the Astribot S1 doing a number of tasks, including everything from pouring a glass of wine to ironing a shirt. The robot can even pull a tablecloth from underneath a stack of wine glasses, a trick we all half-expect to fail spectacularly.

Astribot S1: Hello World!

The Astribot S1 even folds a shirt in the new video, just like Optimus, but you’ll notice something really interesting in the lower left-hand corner. Those words, “no teleoperation,” probably wouldn’t have been necessary before Musk tried to pull a fast one back in January. But now, as you can see below, it’s a way for robot companies to reassure viewers their robot is actually doing something autonomously without an invisible human hand guiding the process.

Image for article titled Tesla's Optiumus video fub is leading other robot makers to add teleoperation disclaimers

Screenshot: Astribot /YouTube

And it’s not just Astribot. The robot company Figure, which uses OpenAI software for its vision software, recently made clear it wasn’t using teleoperation, or teleop, in a very impressive demo released in March.

Figure co-founder Brett Adcock explained the video on X, “The video is showing end-to-end neural networks. There is no teleop. Also, this was filmed at 1.0x speed and shot continuously.”

Canadian robotics company Sanctuary AI released a new video in April that also included a slate explaining that its robot was “autonomous,” reassuring viewers there wasn’t any weird teleoperating puppetry at work.

Sanctuary AI – Phoenix at Human-Equivalent Speed

Musk has a long way to go to catch up to the most innovative robot companies like Boston Dynamics, which just recently retired the hydraulic version of its robot Atlas to devote time to an electric version. But at least he helped provide a public service by increasing transparency in the robotics space.

Nobody wants to get caught fudging a demo. That’s the kind of thing that makes people incredibly reluctant to trust you in the future. At least when Musk brought out a human dancing in a robot suit everybody knew it was fake.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo.

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