Chinese calligraphy demonstration by a robot on display at two museums this weekend

(From left) Students Xavier Teng, Nicholas Yeo and Elfiqri Ashriq at the preview of a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy, on April 21, 2021.
(From left) Students Xavier Teng, Nicholas Yeo and Elfiqri Ashriq at the preview of a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy, on April 21, 2021.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
(From left) Students Nicholas Yeo, Elfiqri Ashriq, and Xavier Teng, showcasing a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy together with Mr Ma Shuang Lu, on April 21, 2021.
(From left) Students Nicholas Yeo, Elfiqri Ashriq, and Xavier Teng, showcasing a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy together with Mr Ma Shuang Lu, on April 21, 2021.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Holding a brush in each hand, a two-armed robot programmed to write Chinese calligraphy took a few short, choppy strokes to write a Chinese idiom in five seconds.

Beside it, renowned calligrapher Ma Shuang Lu wrote the same idiom by hand with slower, more fluid strokes of his brush.

They both wrote tian xia wei gong (the world belongs to all), a slogan used by Chinese revolutionary figure Sun Yat Sen to refer to an ideal society.

Mr Ma said while the robot does not have the spontaneity of a human, it has its strengths, and together, the YuMi robot and human calligraphers can complement one another.

"Chinese calligraphy is not just simply about writing. It is about expressing one's emotion through pen and ink on a piece of paper. In this regard, technology is still some distance away from us humans," Mr Ma said in Mandarin on Wednesday (April 21).

"However, computers can store vast amounts of information, such as generations' worth of works. In contrast, the human brain is limited," he added.

The YuMi robot - manufactured by Swedish-Swiss company ABB - is commonly used in the consumer electronics industry for tasks like small part assembly, and was specially programmed by staff and students from Temasek Polytechnic's (TP) School of Engineering.

It will be on display at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery this weekend, as part of ongoing efforts by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to tap technology and innovation to encourage greater interest in heritage, especially among youth.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive for policy and community, said: "By marrying technology and hands-on experience, we hope to generate more interest, especially among youth, in Chinese calligraphy, and introduce new ways for the public to experience and enjoy it."

The idea emerged when Mr Tan saw a robot doing calligraphy featured in the 2021 Spring Festival Gala shown on Chinese media outlet CGTN in February. He found out that TP's School of Engineering had such a robot, and reached out to them.

Ms Chan Choy Peng, course chair for TP's diploma in mechatronics, said she was assisted by her Year 3 students, who helped in optimising the robot's movements using advanced calculations, and programming it to effectively perform the precise and delicate movements required of a calligrapher.

Said student Xavier Teng, 21: "When the robot's hands were writing the words in the middle, they tended to get into contact. So we had to ensure the hands did not hit each other."

Added Ms Chan: "We had to plan the sequence and timing of strokes so that both the right and left hand will finish writing at the same time."

The robot will be on display from 10am to 3pm at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall this Saturday (April 24) and the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery this Sunday (April 25). Scrolls written by the robot will be distributed for free to the first 150 visitors.

Members of the public can also sign up for a one-hour workshop by Mr Ma on basic calligraphy techniques at $5 per slot.