China is pi­o­neer­ing the ro­bot rev­o­lu­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PAGE TWO - Erik Nils­son

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 @chi­

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