Orphan Risks: Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot Raised Serious Concerns, But Not the Ones You Think

Elon Musk has announced a robot-like humanoid robot that can help with repetitive and tedious tasks. Musk suggested that it could go to the grocery store with you, but it can likely handle many jobs that require manual labor.

Social media was filled with references to dystopian sci-fi movies about robotics, where everything goes sour.

While the futures of robots in movies such as I Robot and The Terminator are troubling, the underlying technologies and intent behind real humanoid robotics should be concerning.

Tesla is currently developing Musk’s robot. This robot is a departure from Tesla’s car-making business. But, it’s not typical of an automotive manufacturer. The “HT0_ Tesla Bot” concept is for a human-like, sleek robot that can use Tesla’s automotive artificial Intelligence and autopilot technologies to plan and navigate traffic, avoid obstacles, and even follow pedestrians.

The plan fits Musk’s business strategy well, even though it has dystopian sci-fi undertones. Humans created the built environment for humans. Musk argued at the Tesla Bot’s launch that successfully advanced technologies would have to learn to navigate it as people do.

However, Tesla’s robots and cars are only visible products of a larger plan to create a future in which advanced technologies free humans from their biological roots. They are blending biology and technology. This plan raises concerns beyond the speculative sci-fi fears about super-smart robotics.

A man with big dreams

Self-driving cars and interplanetary missiles are steps toward the future Musk sees technology as humanity’s salvation. Brain-machine interfaces are another step in Musk’s vision of a world where technology is humanity’s savior. This future energy is affordable, plentiful, and sustainable. People will work harmoniously with intelligent machines and merge with them. Humans will become an interplanetary specie.

This is a future that, according to Musk’s many endeavors, will be built upon a set of related technologies that includes sensors, actuators, and energy infrastructures. It also incorporates significant advances in computer power and systems integration. These technologies combine to create a powerful toolbox for developing transformative technologies.

Musk envisions humans transcending their evolutionary heritage by using beyond-human or “superhuman” technologies. Technology must first be human or designed to thrive in a human-designed environment before it can become superhuman.

This “make-tech-more human” approach to innovation underpins Tesla’s car technologies, including extensive optical camera use. When connected with an AI brain, these cameras allow vehicles to navigate roads “designed to biological neural nets.” In other words, humans. According to Musk, this is a small step away from “robots on wheels” that are human-inspired to become human-like robots on their legs.

It’s easier said than done.

The Tesla Bot developers started with Tesla’s “full-self-driving” technology. This includes the dubious named Autopilot. This technology is impressive, but it’s not 100% reliable. Accidents and deaths caused by Tesla’s Autopilot mode, the most recent being due to the algorithms failing to recognize parked emergency cars, are raising questions about the wisdom of releasing this tech so quickly.

This record is not good news for robots resembling humans and relying on the same technology. This is not a matter of technological perfection. The Autopilot problems of Tesla are made worse by human behavior. Some Tesla drivers treat their tech-enhanced vehicles as fully autonomous and need to pay more attention to driving. Could the Tesla Bot do something similar?

Tesla Bot’s “orphan risks.”

My work in socially beneficial technology innovation focuses on orphan risk. These risks are difficult to quantify and easy for innovators to ignore, but they can still be challenging. My colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and other people to navigate these problems through the risk Innovation Nexus initiative of the Arizona State University Orin Edson Innovation Institute & Global Futures Laboratory.

There are many orphan risks associated with the Tesla Bot. There are potential threats to privacy and autonomy as the bot collects and shares potentially sensitive information. There are also challenges in how people will think about and respond to humanoid robots. Misalignments may exist between ideological or ethical perspectives, such as criminal control or policing civil demonstrations. These are issues that engineers rarely get to deal with, but not addressing them can lead to disaster.

Although the Tesla Bot might seem benign or even a bit of humor, if it is to be commercially successful, its investors, developers, and future consumers need to ask tough questions about how it could threaten their values and how they can navigate these threats.

These threats could be as specific as someone making modifications to the robot that increase its performance, making it move faster, for instance, without considering the risks. Or as broad as the technology being used in new ways. These threats can also be subtle, such as the threat posed by a humanoid robotics system to your job security or how advanced surveillance systems might compromise your privacy.

There are also issues of technological bias, which have been plaguing AI since. This is especially true when it leads to highly discriminatory learned behavior. AI algorithms have generated racist and sexist results.

We should not limit ourselves to what we can do.

Although the Tesla Bot might seem like a small step toward Musk’s vision for superhuman technologies, it’s not much more than hubristic showmanship. The audacious plans that underpin it are severe and raise serious questions.

Musk’s vision is a prime example of this. Musk can be a part of creating the future he dreams of. But who is to say he should? Musk’s vision of the future is the best or the worst. Who will bear the consequences of things going wrong?

These are the deeper concerns the Tesla Bot raises in me as someone who studies the future and how we impact it. However, this does not suggest that Tesla Bot should be dismissed or that Elon Musk shouldn’t have the opportunity to build his future-building muscle. These revolutionary ideas and technologies can open up a bright future for billions of people if used properly.

Suppose consumers, investors, or others become too distracted by new tech or ignore the hype. In that case, society may hand the future over to wealthy innovators with a vision beyond their comprehension. Their future dreams need to be aligned with most people’s aspirations or be catastrophically flawed. They could be hindering the creation of a just, equitable future.

This is the most crucial lesson that dystopian robot-future sci-fi movies have taught us. Not the apparent concern of creating robots that can run rampant but the much more significant challenge of deciding who gets the right to envision the future and to be part of it.


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