Xiaomi’s CyberOne robot shows us what to expect from Tesla’s promised Optimus bot

Chinese tech company Xiaomi – perhaps best known in the West for ripping off Apple’s designs – has unveiled a prototype bipedal robot: the slick CyberOne.

The bot was unveiled last week and, based on a short demo, it can’t do much more than walk across a stage. However, the CyberOne does show us the current state of robot development for a non-specialized company like Xiaomi and provides valuable context as to what we might expect from a, er, quite similar-looking bipedal bot: Tesla’s much-hyped Optimus robot, due to will be unveiled as a prototype later this year on September 30.

According to Xiaomi’s official specs, the CyberOne weighs 52kg (114lbs) and is 177cm tall (that’s 5 feet 8 inches – making CyberOne officially a short king). It has a top speed of 3.6 km/h (that’s 2.2 mph, just below the average walking pace) and comes with a pair of mitten-like hands that can open and close, but seem incapable of more agile movements .

The bot has some sort of machine vision system for navigation that can do depth sensing at distances of up to eight meters, and Xiaomi claims it can also “sense” human emotions, presumably using some sort of AI system to parse facial expressions. (An important caveat here: Experts say this kind of emotion-recognition AI is essentially unscientific, and some tech giants like Microsoft have stopped offering it for this reason.)

Here’s an entertaining video of CyberOne walking around and falling over a lot. It’s worth pointing out that we never see CyberOne picking itself up (because it definitely can’t).

As for advanced robotics, the CyberOne is an admirably slick package that offers no particularly surprising capabilities. In terms of mobility, it is surpassed by bipedal creations from Boston Dynamics, and in terms of perception and processing, its features are not so remarkable. So why build it at all?

Well, at IEEE spectrum, robot reporter Evan Ackerman astutely points out that Xiaomi is actually quite candid about CyberOne’s purpose. In a press release, the company describes CyberOne as a “symbol of Xiaomi’s commitment to incubating a technology ecosystem” and says the work on the bot will “bring more application scenarios in other areas” (emphasis mine). In other words, CyberOne is a marketing tool and platform for wider R&D efforts, and Xiaomi isn’t promising to build a robot butler anytime soon.

But like a butler ringing the dinner bell, those words should draw attention to the other robot in this analysis: Tesla’s Optimus.

Compared to Xiaomi, Tesla founder Elon Musk has promised to build a robot butler. When the company’s man in a spandex suit was unveiled last year, Musk said the machine could follow complex human commands, such as “please go to a store and get me the following groceries.” He has been since repeated such claimsrecently described the Tesla Optimus as a “general-purpose humanoid robot” that “will replace humans in repetitive, boring and dangerous tasks.”

As is common for the Tesla CEO, Musk is confusing timelines and blurring the distinction between possible future technology and current possibilities to unleash listeners’ imaginations. But let’s be clear: Tesla is not selling a robot for “general purpose” in the short term.

As I wrote last year, such promises go far beyond what even advanced technology can do. Robots can do basic work, yes, but in limited and specialized scenarios, such as industrial bots in factories and robot vacuum cleaners. When it comes to building a general purpose bot, Xiaomi’s CyberOne offers a much more realistic picture of what to expect.

I’ve said before that I believe Tesla will build and unveil a prototype humanoid bot. Like Xiaomi’s CyberOne, it can walk and talk in pre-arranged demos, and can show some more advanced hand movements or lifting capabilities (such as Agility Robotics’ Digit bot, which is bipedal and can lift up to 18 kilograms). But it certainly won’t do your shopping anytime soon. As the CyberOne shows, it’s fun and productive to build a robot for both marketing and research purposes. But I wish Elon Musk could be as honest as Xiaomi about what he can actually expect from this technology.

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