'Tin men' capture Chinese hearts

A robot taking on a human at table tennis during a demonstration at the World Robot Conference in Beijing. The automation push has support at the highest levels of China’s government.
A robot taking on a human at table tennis during a demonstration at the World Robot Conference in Beijing. The automation push has support at the highest levels of China’s government.PHOTO: REUTERS

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 buyers for their "jiqiren" - "machine people" in Chinese.

The automation push has support at the highest levels of government. President Xi Jinping sent his 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 aims.

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 participants at the three-day conference, which started on Monday, said the real market opportunity was in service robots for the homes and offices of the world's most populous country.

The world's second-largest economy is already the leading market for industrial robots, accounting for a quarter of global sales, says the International Federation of Robotics.

"There are fewer than 100,000 robots in Chinese families, not including vacuum cleaners," said Mr Liu Xuenan, CEO of Canbot.

In the future, said Mr Yu Kai, the head of Horizon Robotics, China's automated helpers will do everything from building cars to driving them. He predicts that "each person might have 10 robots" - nearly 14 billion potential tin men at current population levels.

Robots have captured China's imagination. In the cities, businesses try to attract customers with robot waiters, cooks and concierges. In the countryside, rural artisans cobble together mechanical men from scrapyard junk.

But the transition to a real robot economy could be tricky, with the country's technology still lagging far behind neighbours South Korea and Japan.

China should have more realistic expectations for the near future, said Mr Pinpin Zhu, president of the country's voice-controlled service Xiao I Robot.

The country may descend from the peak of high expectations into a "trough of disillusionment", said Mr Zhu, who believes a smartphone-based "Planet of the Apps" is more likely than a world served by humanoid robots.

For China to lead the robot revolution, it will have to overcome what many experts see as a penchant for copying.

The Chinese vision of the future on display in the cavernous exhibition hall had a distinct whiff of the past. Most of the displays were heavy industry mechanical arms, leavened with robotic butlers reminiscent of a 1980s movie.

But manufacturers are making rapid progress, said Mr 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."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2015, with the headline ''Tin men' capture Chinese hearts'. Print Edition | Subscribe