Rosamund Pike in Die Another Day. File photo
by Neil Newman
by Neil Newman

Is Elon Musk’s Tesla-bot a surrogate Rosamund Pike?

  • Musk claims his ‘useful’ humanoid robot is built for ‘boring’ jobs, but his deeper vision may be something more akin to the 2009 movie ‘Surrogates’
  • Telepresence is a relatively new business, now freely accessible though platforms such as Zoom. If Tesla gives it legs, we could all have our own Avatar

That Hollywood is credited with predicting the future is something we increasingly take for granted. And it’s true, the props we see on the screen often do turn up in real life. That is only reasonable, since futuristic film and television is the product of the same creative imaginations that propel the invention of new consumer goods.

Here are my five favourite examples from my outdated DVD collection of movies and television shows – have a guess at the titles, answers below. Doors that open automatically when you walk towards them, lifts you speak instructions to that can answer back, and flip-up communicators – that is an easy one from 1966. The compact disc first appeared in a 1971 dystopian vision about an ultra-violent classical music lover and his droogs; the same director’s 1968 masterpiece showed us heads-up displays and personal in-flight entertainment.

A frightening vision of the future, but what’s the movie? Read to the end to find out. Photo: Haandout
In 1989 we saw the floating hoverboard, augmented reality and a flying car – all of which currently exist in some form, and if Toyota had not pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics, we may have seen their airborne automobile. Then there is the 1993 film, which I dusted off recently, that was loaded with imaginative consumer technology that is all around us now: slick gull-winged, self-driving electric cars, videophone calls, telepresence conferences, audio-operated consumer goods and a toilet with three seashell-shaped buttons and no toilet paper.

While movies are littered with predictions of consumer androids and robots, the one that lingered in my memory was Surrogates from 2009. It starred a youthful, CGI-enhanced Bruce Willis and a genuinely youthful Rosamund Pike, both of whom lived their characters’ lives through robotic avatars.

The difference between the robotic avatars in Surrogates and, for example, the androids that are made in Hong Kong by Hanson Robotics who brought us Sophia – the world’s first robot citizen – is that they are piloted from an all-immersive cockpit-chair, whereas Sophia is on her own. That means the avatars do not use artificial intelligence (AI) to think, act or respond, that’s all done by a real person – the pilot. The computers in the movie avatars just control the motor functions of the device to balance, walk, run, and in the case of Bruce’s character, pull itself out of a crashed helicopter to chase his assailant.
An engineer rides a real-life Hendo Hoverboard in Los Gatos, California. Photo: AP
Last week, Elon Musk attempted to tantalise his audience with a taste of a new product, a “useful” humanoid robot. Head-scratching followed and Tesla’s share price didn’t budge. After all, humanoid robots inherently should not be necessary to do repetitive jobs, you just need a machine for those. I saw an example of this with a task being given to a two-armed Kawasaki robot at an exhibition in Tokyo in 2017: operating an espresso machine that used those little flying saucer coffee pellets.

I instructed the robot using an iPad which wirelessly told it I wanted a dark roast foamy cappuccino with chocolate sprinkled on top. It whirred away with its arms and selected the right coffee pellet, moved the cup right in, pressed the button and finished off shaking a bit of cocoa on top.

Hongkongers keep the faith, but for how much longer?

Silly idea, really. All you would do in real life is install a coffee machine like the ones you see in WeWork that make fancy coffee. Or if you wanted something a bit more complex, perhaps a sugar-free venti caramel macchiato extra-shot, extra hot, extra whip, then, like, employ a real person.

Musk said that these devices would be built to do “boring jobs”, but owning a car factory he would know that those would be best done by machines fixed to the floor with carefully controlled arms or on a robot wheely. He also told us that where the head’s at, there would be a place to display “useful information”, though what that could be he didn’t say. Battery bars perhaps? How about a face? And to get around, it would use the same self-driving technology that Tesla cars employ when they are allowed to by regulators – that bit made some sense.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, says humans will be able to ‘overpower’ his new robot. Photo: AFP

Weighing in at 56kg and about 173cm high, the machines could be “overpowered” by a human. It may sound a little strange that Musk would emphasise that, but if you have watched product demonstration videos from Boston Dynamics and, like me, are a fan of the Terminator movies, they send shivers up your spine. If you’re going to sell this kind of product to the everyman, you need something that’s attractive and not the least bit scary. Musk’s presentation made me think of Rosamund Pike and I got that 2009 DVD out.

Could Surrogates have predicted something? It is worth considering how avatars may fit into the world for people with severe motor disabilities who are often denied a normal physical presence outside their homes. To do this, fancy a posh coffee served by avatars in Tokyo?

A ‘Tesla-Bot’ humanoid robot prototype. Photo: Image courtesy of Tesla
I came across a small, innovative robotics company in Japan a couple of years ago, OryLab, with a classic story behind it of a university kid running with a bright idea.

CEO Kentaro Yoshifuji had a real-life disability as a child that put him in hospital for a few crucial years during secondary school. Having missed out on classes and social interactions with his friends, he later developed a telepresence solution in a small, cute plastic robot so other people in a similar situation could counter the loneliness and isolation he’d experienced.

In providing a portable speech and vision link, with expression and humour delivered through a pair of remote-controlled plastic flippers, he built an avatar that could join in at a gathering of friends and family.

Today, OriHime robots are for sale, providing social portals for disabled people so they can attend a wide range of events such as graduation ceremonies, weddings, sports events, or even go on holiday – a group of friends virtually took a bedridden chum to Paris.

Another of Neil’s favourite visionary movies, but what is it? Read to the end to find out. Photo: Shutterstock

Crucially, since 2018, OryLab has provided avatar robots to Dawn, a coffee shop in Tokyo where the serving “staff” is piloted by employed disabled people working remotely from home. I think this is what’s behind the Tesla robot. But why make it humanoid?

Mobile telepresence already exists. You can visit trade shows and zip around virtually in a device that looks like an iPad mounted on a broom handle on a hoverboard, but it’s not something that would attract people to you for a chat. And you can’t fist-bump them.

OryLab’s range of robots display the Japanese love for the cutesy, looking something like Softbank’s flopped “Pepper” robot, but with goofy-looking flippers waving around, performing a tremendous service for mobility-impaired people in a social setting.

‘Sophia’ at Hanson Robotics’ studio in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

Until Tesla, electric concept cars were always goofy-looking things that were tucked away in the corner at motor shows. Musk picked up on this and realised that a key hurdle in making a successful electric car was to convince consumers it was something they’d want to drive, rather than something they’d feel embarrassed to be seen arriving at work in. His first car, the Roadster, was indeed designed and made by Lotus. The second, the Model S, was an in-house design that ended up looking something like a cross between an Aston Martin and a Maserati. Tesla’s technical expertise did the rest to produce machines that outstrip in terms of performance – but it was the looks that got us interested and turned them into bestsellers.

Japan’s message for China: a baby boom isn’t going to happen

Sorry Elon, I don’t believe you when you say that these robots will be developed just to do boring jobs. Quite the contrary, I sniff something very different and exciting: Tesla work-from-home avatar, a robot to walk the cobbled streets of Paris or along the shops of Ginza with you as the pilot. Or even to explore the moon or walk on Mars. I’d certainly rent one for that!

Answers: Star Trek; A Clockwork Orange; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Back To The Future Part II; Demolition Man.

Neil Newman is a thematic portfolio strategist focused on pan-Asian equity markets