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Musk wants to start selling Tesla’s A.I.-powered humanoid robot next year, but his A.I. chief just went on sabbatical

March 28, 2022, 1:15 PM UTC

Tesla’s director for artificial intelligence is taking a sabbatical from the company, but that has not stopped CEO Elon Musk from announcing plans for the possible market launch of its A.I.-heavy Optimus robot in 2023.

In an interview published on Sunday, the ambitious billionaire (with a penchant for setting out unrealistic goals) reaffirmed plans to present a working proof-of-concept for the Optimus—an all new product, for which there has not even been a physical mock-up.

“It could be ready towards the end of next year, at least for a moderate (scale) series production,” he told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag, promising a “pretty good result on a prototype basis” before the end of this December. 

Tesla appears to be in the process of rebranding itself as an A.I. company first, carmaker second as part of the next stage of growth—Musk’s Master Plan Part 3

During Tesla’s product roadmap update in January, Musk said that this year’s top two priorities are not completing engineering work on several cars already promised, but finishing Full Self-Driving (FSD) and working on Optimus. 

Musk has argued the humanoid bot he unveiled in virtual form for the first time in August is not unlike a Tesla car: motion is achieved through a series of actuators and motors operated by a central processor and imbued with A.I. — only instead of a four-wheels, its chassis is bipedal.

“Humanoid robots are coming, look at Boston Dynamics. They make better models every year,” Musk told the German weekly, referring to the new Hyundai Motor subsidiary that once belonged to tech investor SoftBank.

A.I. head sabbatical

In light of Musk’s announcement, the sudden news that his director of A.I., Andrej Karpathy, is taking a four-month sabbatical from his day job raises question marks. 

Many Tesla investors no doubt remember similar news in 2018 with regards to Doug Field, who subsequently departed to Apple and then Ford, where he is now in charge of engineering for the EV operations recently spun off into Ford Model e

Karpathy has been in charge of Tesla Vision, the most critical part of FSD currently still officially undergoing beta testing. 

This software system endows the car with the ability to instantly process footage from eight cameras placed around the vehicle into a three-dimensional map of its surroundings including the velocity and likely direction of other cars, cyclists and pedestrians detected.

While marketed in beta, FSD is in reality very much still a work in progress in which over 60,000 Tesla owners in the United States voluntarily serve as unofficial guinea pigs to troubleshoot the software.

The sabbatical comes as FSD beta testers still await the arrival of Version 11, which would combine software for city driving and highway driving into one so-called single stack that should streamline development. 

It was presumably V11 that prompted Elon Musk to ask buyers to pay $12,000 for FSD in January. While inflation has prompted Tesla to repeatedly raise the price for cars, software is not directly affected by higher raw material costs for metals, plastics and other inputs. 

During a recent interview with A.I. expert Lex Fridman, Musk may have given a subtle signal playing down Karpathy’s importance. “Andrej’s awesome and obviously plays an important role, but we have a lot of really talented people driving things,” he told the podcaster in December. “People will give me too much credit and they’ll give Andrej too much credit.” 

This could suggest Ashok Elluswamy and Milan Kovac will be playing an even bigger role going forward, even if Karpathy does not follow Field in leaving the company. 

Karpathy, who himself said he was in the middle of a “digital nomad trip” that would see him visit Europe and Asia, suggested he had every intention of returning.

“I already miss all the robots” he posted to Twitter, adding he looked forward to having at his fingertips again Tesla’s supercomputer, allegedly among the five most powerful known in the world with over 10,000 graphics processing units

Courtesy of Tesla

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