China dreams of elec­tric sheep at ro­bot con­fer­ence

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

BEI­JING: In a mar­tial artist’s white silk py­ja­mas, a man prac­tised tai-chi in har­mony with a mo­torised arm at a Bei­jing ex­hi­bi­tion show­cas­ing a vi­sion of ro­bots with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics. Ve­hi­cles with au­to­mated gun tur­rets sat along­side drink-serv­ing karaoke ma­chines at the World Ro­bot Con­fer­ence, as man­u­fac­tur­ers sought new buy­ers for their “jiqiren”-”ma­chine peo­ple” in Chi­nese.

The push has sup­port at the high­est lev­els of govern­ment. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is­sued a let­ter of con­grat­u­la­tions for the con­fer­ence, and the in­dus­try is name-checked in the draft ver­sion of the coun­try’s new five-year plan, the pol­icy doc­u­ment that guides na­tional eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy is al­ready the lead­ing mar­ket for in­dus­trial ro­bots, ac­count­ing for a quar­ter of global sales, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics.

But ex­ec­u­tives at a con­fer­ence round­table said the real mar­ket op­por­tu­nity was in ser­vice ro­bots for the homes and of­fices of the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try.

“There are now less than 100,000 ro­bots in Chi­nese fam­i­lies, not in­clud­ing vac­uum clean­ers,” said Liu Xue­nan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Can­bot. In the fu­ture, said Yu Kai, the head of Hori­zon Ro­bot­ics, China’s au­to­mated helpers will do ev­ery­thing from build­ing cars to driv­ing them, pre­dict­ing that “each per­son might have 10 ro­bots”-nearly 14 bil­lion po­ten­tial tin men at cur­rent pop­u­la­tion lev­els.

Planet of the Apps Ro­bots have cap­tured China’s imag­i­na­tion. From Trans­form­ers to Bay­max, the star of Dis­ney’s movie “Big Hero 6”, Chi­nese con­sumers have em­braced ro­bot he­roes, spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions on re­lated movies and mer­chan­dise. In Chi­nese cities, busi­nesses try to at­tract cus­tomers with ro­bot waiters, cooks, and concierges. In the coun­try­side, ru­ral Da Vin­cis cob­ble to­gether me­chan­i­cal men from scrap­yard junk. A panel at the con­fer­ence strug­gled with the ques­tion of how China would deal with the rise of ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent ma­chines. But the tran­si­tion from the world of fan­tasy and nov­elty to a real ro­bot econ­omy could be tricky, with the coun­try’s tech­nol­ogy still lag­ging far be­hind neigh­bours Korea and Ja­pan, the undis­puted king of the ro­bots. China should have more re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions for the near fu­ture, said Pin­pin Zhu, pres­i­dent of China’s voice con­trolled ser­vice Xiao I Ro­bot, which was in­volved in a patent dis­pute with Amer­i­can tech gi­ant Ap­ple linked to its per­sonal dig­i­tal as­sis­tant Siri.

The coun­try may de­scend from the peak of high ex­pec­ta­tions into a “trough of dis­il­lu­sion­ment”, said Zhu, who be­lieves a smart­phone-based “Planet of the Apps” is more likely than a world served by hu­manoid ro­bots. Some com­pa­nies, he said, were fo­cus­ing on more re­al­is­tic prod­ucts, such as “try­ing to mod­ify the mi­crowave oven into a ro­bot that can fry eggs... maybe it doesn’t look like a ro­bot, but it has ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.” ‘I won’t be alive’ Skynet, the ma­li­cious com­puter that rains nu­clear de­struc­tion on the Earth in the Ter­mi­na­tor se­ries of movies, re­mains a far dis­tant prospect.

A bad­minton-play­ing ro­bot on dis­play at the con­fer­ence could barely de­fend against a small boy’s serve, much less trig­ger the apoca­lypse. And for China to lead the ro­bot revo­lu­tion, it will have to do more than design ma­chines able to beat chil­dren at lawn sports-it will also have to over­come what many ex­perts see as a pen­chant for mech­a­nis­tic copy­ing. The Chi­nese vi­sion of the fu­ture on dis­play in the cav­ernous ex­hi­bi­tion hall had a dis­tinct whiff of the past.

Ro­bots with a more than pass­ing re­sem­blance to me­chan­i­cal su­per he­roes Iron Man and Op­ti­mus Prime danced to the Chi­nese mega pop hit “Lit­tle Ap­ple”, while booths pushed de­riv­a­tive Seg­ways and Room­bas. Most of the re­main­ing dis­plays were heavy in­dus­try me­chan­i­cal arms, leav­ened with ro­botic but­lers rem­i­nis­cent of a 1980s movie. But man­u­fac­tur­ers are mak­ing rapid progress, said Toshio Fukuda, an ex­pert on ro­bot­ics at Ja­pan’s Nagoya Univer­sity, adding that imi­ta­tion was a way-sta­tion on the road to in­no­va­tion.

“In the be­gin­ning, you just make a copy. There’s no cre­ativ­ity,” he said, not­ing that Ja­pan too was once crit­i­cised for hav­ing a copy­cat cul­ture. “It’s a process. They have to im­prove.” Asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of fu­ture ro­bots turn­ing against their masters and tak­ing over the world, he laughed. “Maybe in 30 or 40 years,” he said. “But I’m not wor­ried. I won’t still be alive.”

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