Elon Musk Just Introduced a Life-Changing Idea With a Really Big Problem. (How Did Everyone Miss This?)


Elon Musk, I admit, is blessed with more innate intelligence than most people, and has achieved greater success than most of us ever will.

It’s why I’ve studied him carefully for years, and why I’ve even written a free ebook, Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, which you can download here. (You’ll probably like it.)

And it’s why I came away shocked, after realizing that Musk and his team had missed a very big problem this week, when they talked about the physical design of a life-changing new idea.

Then, I began to think about why it could have happened.

To understand, we have to start with the news that Tesla is working on a humanoid robot–something that looks like it stepped right out of I, Robot. Musk seemed genuinely sincere about the idea when he announced it at Tesla’s AI Day, and he promised that a real prototype is about a year away: 

“The Tesla bot will be real. Our cars [at Tesla] are like semi-sentient robots on wheels. … It kind of makes sense to put that onto a humanoid form.”

The problem I think we’re going to run into has to do with how Musk describes what the “humanoid form” will look and act like:

  • “Friendly, of course.”
  • “Five feet eight inches tall.”
  • “You can run away from it and most likely overpower it.”

“Hopefully that doesn’t ever happen,” Musk added with laughter: “But, you never know. Five miles an hour; if you can run faster than that, you’ll be fine.”

This is where I paused. And frankly, it’s where I got caught up on the proposed height–because at 5 feet 8 inches, Musk’s robots would be about an inch taller than I am.

Yes, Musk was being a bit sardonic, but imagine building these things as described, and then cutting them loose in society to run more or less independently. As he put it, one practical use case would be: Please go to the store and get me the following groceries.”

Imagine what it would be like to have these things walking about in your town, cutting in front of you in the stores you frequent, jockeying for space with people on sidewalks.

Thus, I think the proposed height and size are a very big deal. 

Forget about my personal physical stature; lots of media sources incorrectly parroted the idea that Tesla robots would be roughly as tall as the average American.

But that’s not correct. The robot height Musk cited is just slightly under the height of the average American man, but it’s also significantly taller than the average American woman: 5 feet 4 inches.

Now, Musk is reportedly 6 feet 2. Thus, despite his years of warning about the dangers of AI and robotics, and his joking remark (I think it’s a joke) that you should be able to “overpower” one of these things, I can imagine why the proposed size might not strike him as an issue.

But, even if Musk doesn’t get it, why wouldn’t others around him speak up? Even if the men on his team were clueless, wouldn’t it have been obvious to the women?

Oh, right. Where are the women?

Let’s go to the numbers. Last December, Tesla released an audit explaining the demographic makeup of its employees, including its leadership team. Here’s what they shared for gender representation:

  • 83 percent men.
  • 17 percent women.

In fact, I’m pretty sure the group that gathered around Musk on stage during the unveiling of the robot idea was 100 percent male. Most of the men were significantly bigger than the actor who played the robot in the presentation; some of them were bigger than Musk, too.

Look, diversity isn’t just about being fair or being a good corporate citizen. It’s also about leveraging advantages, including knowledge and empathy that you’ll never get unless it’s incorporated into the makeup of your team.

If you can’t even hit the 20 percent threshold for gender, there’s a good chance you’re depriving yourself of talented people, but also giving up the ability to understand quickly how big parts of your stakeholder communities are likely to view products and services. 

Anyway, my hope is that people who are close to Musk’s ear will point out the intrinsic problem with this “a bit taller than most actual humans” idea, when it comes to humanoid robots.

Maybe by the time Tesla is really ready to try to turn its army loose on the world, they will have listened. Maybe they’ll them not just smaller, but also cuter and even more obviously harmless.

(Maybe fuzzier, too. Perhaps they could start with something that looks more like an Ewok, instead of bordering on UFC champion Connor McGreggor.) 

Anyway, if you agree, and you’d like to help Tesla “build the future of artificial intelligence,” it turns out they shared this application link during AI Day. Why not apply.

Otherwise, maybe this problem will only get bigger, and the ultimate prototype will turn out to be a 6 foot 4 inch, 250-pound robot that’s designed to subtly muscle non-Tesla customers out of the way, in the physical world.

Hopefully, as Musk might say, that doesn’t ever happen.

But, then again, you never know. 

(If you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, the video of AI Day is set up below. The humanoid robot section begins at about 2:05. Also, don’t forget: The free ebook is called Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, and you can download it here.)

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.