China is pioneering the robot revolution
I recently played badminton with a robot. It won. The contraption developed by university students in Wuhan’s Optics Valley in Hubei province is essentially a wheeled platform with two mounted rackets that uses artificial intelligence to locate and volley the shuttlecock.
It didn’t look particularly humanoid. It didn’t need to.
I then remotely operated a miniature rover robot that shoots pellets. (They didn’t let me have ammunition — probably a good thing.)
Unfortunately, time ran out before I had the chance to engage with the dancing android. My plan, of course, was to dance The Robot.
The boogie machine looks like those that set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of simultaneously dancing robots — 1,007 — at the annual beer festival in Shandong province’s Qingdao city this summer. Originally, 1,040 took the stage but a few dozen toppled over or otherwise malfunctioned.
Dancing dragon bots proved a crowd pleaser at the World Intelligent Manufacturing Summit in Jiangsu’s provincial capital, Nanjing, this month. Nearly 300 companies attended, including 38 Fortune 500 behemoths.
The event was staged within days of the release of a CreditEase and Bloomberg report that forecasts China will become the biggest robo-advisor market — that is, for automated, algorithmdriven financial planning.
The country became the leading market for industrial, but not yet service, robots three years ago.
I’ve seen the manufacturing varieties in the dozens of industrial zones I’ve visited throughout the country.
Near the university in Wuhan, I watched an opticfiber company’s automatons transport shipments from the production line to the warehouse.
Years ago, I toured a fully automated auto-parts assembly line in southeastern China. Two supervisors were the only other humans in the spacious plant. Oddly — almost eerily — Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata echoed through the factory.
Today, service droids are becoming progressively prevalent.
This month, Shenzhen Airlines put into operation 16 customer-assistance androids, while Shenzhen’s airport unveiled security robots in August.
The 1.5-meter-high eggshaped “police” use four cameras equipped with facial-recognition technology, and can remotely disarm suspects and explosives. They zip around at up to 18 kilometers per hour and steer to the nearest recharging point when their batteries are low.
In the real world, RoboCop lives in Shenzhen, rather than Detroit.
Still, China’s nascent ser- vice-automation sector is just revving up and looks set to accelerate full-throttle.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced a goal to sell over 30 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) of service bots to advance such sectors as healthcare, education and entertainment within five years.
China is purposefully pioneering the robot revolution.
It was a striking contrast when I recently walked out of the gate of the university where I live. A horse-drawn farmer’s cart clattered on one side of the street, and an android operated by students whirred along the other. It seems a telling testimonial to the nation’s brisk, yet unbalanced, development.
It seems to suggest that perhaps playing badminton with a robot soon won’t be a novelty.
Instead, playing with another human may be — at least relative to today.
Contact the writer at erik_nilsson @chinadaily.com.cn