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-looking CyberOne.

The bot was unveiled last week, and, judging from a brief demo, can do little 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 offers valuable context as to what we might expect from a, uh, rather similar looking bipedal bot: Tesla’s much-hyped Optimus robot, due to be unveiled as a prototype later this year on September 30th.

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

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 “perceive” human emotion, presumably using some sort of AI system to parse facial expressions. (An important side-note here: experts say these sorts of emotion recognition AI are essentially unscientific, and some tech giants like Microsoft have stopped offering them for this reason.)

As far as cutting-edge robotics go, then, the CyberOne is an admirably slick package that offers no particularly surprising capabilities. In terms of mobility it’s outclassed by bipedal creations from Boston Dynamics, and in terms of perception and processing its features are not that remarkable. So why build it at all?

Well, over at IEEE Spectrum, robot reporter Evan Ackerman astutely points out that Xiaomi is actually being quite upfront about CyberOne’s purpose. In a press release, the company describes CyberOne as a “symbol of Xiaomi’s dedication to incubate a technological ecosystem” and says work on the bot will “give birth to more application scenarios in other fields” (emphasis mine). In other words: CyberOne is a marketing tool and a platform for broader R&D efforts and Xiaomi is not promising to build a robot butler any time soon.

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

In comparison to Xiaomi, Tesla founder Elon Musk has promised to build a robot butler. When the company’s man in spandex suit humanoid bot was unveiled last year, Musk said the machine would be able to follow complex human commands like “please go to a store and get me the following groceries.” He’s since repeated such claims, recently describing the Tesla Optimus as a “general-purpose humanoid robot” that will “replace people in repetitive, boring, and dangerous tasks.”

As is usual for Tesla’s CEO, Musk conflates timelines and muddies the distinction between possible future tech and current capabilities in order to give listeners’ imagination free rein. But let’s be clear: Tesla is not selling a “general purpose” robot any time soon.

As I wrote last year, promises like this are just far beyond what even cutting-edge tech can do. Robots can perform basic labour, yes, but in constrained and specialized scenarios, like industrial bots in factories and robo vacuum cleaners. When it comes to building a general purpose bot, Xiaomi’s CyberOne provides 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 will be able to walk and talk in prearranged demos, and may display some more advanced hand movement or lifting capabilities (like, for example, Agility Robotics’ Digit bot, which is bipedal and can lift up to 18 kilograms). But it certainly won’t be buying your groceries any time soon. As the CyberOne shows, it’s fun and productive to build a robot for both marketing and research purposes. But I just wish Elon Musk could be as honest as Xiaomi about what to actually expect from this technology.