Ro­bots the next step in con­sumer leisure

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Barry He The au­thor is a Lon­don-based colum­nist. Con­tact the writer at ed­i­[email protected]­nadai­

In the wake of the Sin­gles Day ma­nia on Nov 11, Chi­nese con­sumer health has never been stronger. Alibaba alone reached a record-break­ing $30.8 bil­lion in e-com­merce rev­enue in the 24-hour shop­ping event, prompt­ing the ques­tion of how in­dus­tries can con­tinue to please mar­ket tastes that are in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated.

The pur­suit of ideal liv­ing is noth­ing new for con­sumers, how­ever. In the West, mil­len­ni­als and tech-savvy as­pi­ra­tional fam­i­lies over the decades have demon­strated the urge to ob­tain the new­est and shini­est prod­ucts and ser­vices. The largest flat-screen TV, smartest fridge or voice­ac­ti­vated ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence as­sis­tant have all been dif­fer­ent points of the same race in pur­suit of the per­fect life.

In China, the same pat­tern is start­ing to oc­cur, with the fastest-grow­ing mid­dle class in the world show­ing a hunger for the lat­est tech­nol­ogy to bless them with a life of ease and per­haps lux­ury, both in­side and out­side the house. Con­sump­tion of lux­ury goods and high-class ser­vice in­ter­ac­tions in the East are at an all-time high, and this de­mand has spurred in­no­va­tion to sat­isfy the masses.

Com­pa­nies such as Alibaba are ris­ing to this chal­lenge. At the “Ideal Liv­ing” expo ear­lier this year, Alibaba, in con­junc­tion with Shang­hai tech startup Ra­tio, re­vealed a robotic arm ca­pa­ble of mak­ing drinks for cus­tomers vis­it­ing the ho­tels and restau­rants of the fu­ture, with­out the aid of a hu­man bar­tender. The robotic arm, sur­pris­ingly dex­ter­ous, is ca­pa­ble of fill­ing the role of a mixol­o­gist or barista, cre­at­ing classy al­co­hol and cof­fee drinks with hu­man-like pre­ci­sion.

The ro­bot at the expo ef­fort­lessly pro­duced a litchi cock­tail for Alibaba co-founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Jack Ma and a latte for Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, aw­ing jour­nal­ists at­tend­ing the event, who were keen to be next in line to try out the drinks. Con­sumers in the fu­ture will be able to cus­tom­ize their drinks via their smart­phone and al­low the ro­bot’s AI sys­tem to pre­cisely mea­sure the per­cent­age of al­co­hol or caf­feine in each drink.

The bound­aries between sci­ence fic­tion and mid­dle-class liv­ing in China are in­creas­ingly blurred, and at a faster rate than one might ex­pect. Robotic but­lers that can bring any­thing from room ser­vice food and tooth­paste to spare ra­zors to your ho­tel room are al­ready op­er­at­ing across China, al­beit in a few for­ward-think­ing es­tab­lish­ments. At the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel in Nan­tong, Jiangsu prov­ince, these ro­bots even have names such as “Lit­tle I” and “Lit­tle C”.

The AI al­go­rithms and 3D sen­sors re­quired to make this hap­pen are no easy feat. Jumps in these Chi­nese in­dus­tries and healthy in­vest­ment have en­abled such ro­bots to nav­i­gate ho­tels and take un­manned el­e­va­tors to their des­ti­na­tions, as well as make phone calls to guests or knock on the door.

The so­phis­ti­ca­tion of these an­thro­po­mor­phized ro­bots is spread­ing across the rest of Asia, too. In the Ho­tel Jen Tan­glin Sin­ga­pore, such ro­bot but­lers have names such as Jena and Jamie, and are dressed in sleek pink and turquoise tuxe­dos. They are smart and slick ser­vice providers, which also have no re­quire­ment to tip (although if you wish to, the ro­bots are equipped with a range of cash­less pay­ment op­tions).

“They are more than just gad­gets of nov­elty, but rather re­li­able re­sources that are both fun and en­ter­tain­ing for guests”, says Wouter de Graaf, the gen­eral man­ager of Sof­i­tel Sin­ga­pore, which also owns a fleet of sil­ver ser­vants.

The am­bi­tion for tech­nol­ogy to create such ser­vices beyond life’s ne­ces­si­ties is tes­ta­ment to the ef­fects of in­no­va­tion in ev­ery part of our lives. Such in­no­va­tion plays a vi­tal role in up­grad­ing the en­tire way that 1.38 bil­lion peo­ple live and, per­haps more im­por­tant, the way they en­joy that life. Whether it be ro­bot baris­tas or but­lers or any other type of tech­nol­ogy, the grow­ing Chi­nese mar­ket de­mands that day-to­day mo­ments be made eas­ier and more pleas­ant. Given the na­tion’s work ethic, it may be about time that the masses were able to en­joy the fruits of their la­bor.

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