Tesla AI Strategy: Elon Musk on FSD, Optimus Robots, Dojo Supercomputer
October 19, 2023 by Joe Panettieri
Tesla is far more than an electric vehicle (EV) and energy storage company. It also ranks as one of the world's leading artificial intelligence (AI) businesses. But how is Tesla developing AI systems with human sustainability in mind? Here are some clues...
First, some background: Hyperscale cloud companies such as Microsoft (working with OpenAI), Google (aligned with Anthropic) and Amazon Web Services (also working with Anthropic) often dominate the artificial intelligence (AI) conversation among CIOs and futurists. Meanwhile, hardware companies such as NVIDIA, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), IBM, Intel and Lenovo have focused on supercomputer AI opportunities.
Still, some pundits believe Tesla could emerge as the world's top AI company. Among the reasons: Sensors in Tesla's cars provide a live, real-world network for data gathering. And Tesla's back-end infrastructure -- including homegrown supercomputer technology -- can gather, manage and analyze all of that data.
With those R&D efforts in mind, Tesla has assembled "the best real-world AI team on earth," CEO Elon Musk asserted during the company's October 2023 earnings call. "We’ll continue to invest significantly in AI development, as this is really the mass game changer. And I mean success in this regard in the long-term I think has the potential to make Tesla the most valuable company in the world by far. If you have fully autonomous cars at scale and fully autonomous humanoid robots that are truly useful, it’s not clear what the limit is."
In terms of operating expenses, Tesla's R&D spending "continued to rise due to Cybertruck prototype builds and pilot production testing combined with spend on AI technologies like full self-driving, Optimus and Dojo," CFO Vaibhav Taneja said during the October 2023 earnings call. "We have and will continue to make investments in these areas, and hence our capital expenditure and R&D will continue to grow in the near term."
Among the actual dollar figures to note: Tesla's operating expenses were $2.4 billion in Q3 of 2023, up 43% from Q3 of 2022. The company did not disclose how much of that spending involved R&D for AI.
Tesla Optimus: Humanoid Robots Under Development
Tesla announced the Optimus humanoid robot effort during the company's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Day in August 2021. Also known as Tesla Bot, the humanoid robot could be available for sale somewhere between 2025 and 2027, Musk estimated during Tesla AI Day 2022.
Some critics dismiss Tesla Optimus as hype that disappointed robot experts long before the bot's actual launch. But Musk continues to sell his long-term robotics vision. During the October 2023 earnings call, Musk said: "Optimus a year ago could barely walk and now it can do yoga. So, a few years from now, it can probably do ballet."
Related: This video, released in September 2023, highlights some of Tesla Optimus's capabilities.
Assuming Tesla eventually ships Optimus, the humanoid robots could face competition from well-known companies such as Boston Dynamics -- an engineering and robotics company that spun off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hyundai Motor Group has owned Boston Dynamics since June 2021.
Describing the competitive landscape, Musk said: "I don’t think anyone is going to do it better than Tesla, not by a long shot. Boston Dynamics is impressive, but their robot lacks a brain or like the Wizard of Oz, whatever. Yes, lacks a brain. And then you also need to be able to design the humanoid robot in such a way that it can be mass manufactured. And then at some point, the robots will manufacture the robots."
Optimus Robots: Avoiding Skynet and Terminator Judgment Day
As robots become more intelligent, Tesla is working to build safeguards into the system to ensure AI doesn't overrun the human race.
"Now obviously, we need to make sure there's good place for humans in that [AI and robotics] future. We do not want to create some variance of the Terminator [movie] outcome. So, we’re going to put a lot of effort into localized control of the humanoid robot. So basically, anyone will be able to shut it off locally, and you can’t change that, even if you put -- like a software update, you can’t change that. It has to be hard-coded."
Still, it's unclear exactly when Optimus robots will be walking among us. "I think at this point, we are not ready to discuss details of the Optimus program, but we will provide periodic updates online," Musk said during the October 2023 earnings call.
Tesla Dojo Supercomputer: What Is It?
Meanwhile, Dojo represents Tesla's move into chip design, supercomputing and AI, Forbes notes. Indeed, Dojo meshes a "a huge mobile sensor and camera network with powerful edge computing capabilities to a backend supercomputer designed in-house to learn from that data is a paradigm we haven’t seen before and elevates Tesla beyond purely a vehicle manufacturer," Forbes asserts.
The big question: Will Tesla extend Dojo for supercomputer use cases beyond its self-driving cars and Optimus robots? And what sustainability safeguards will be built into the AI systems? We'll be watching.