Robot pens Chinese calligraphy strokes

NHB reaches out to TP School of Engineering for help in using tech to spur interest in the art

Temasek Polytechnic Mechatronic Engineering students Elfiqri Ashriq, 21, Xavier Teng, 21, Nicholas Yeo, 22, showcase a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy at a preview session held at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall yesterday.
Temasek Polytechnic Mechatronic Engineering students Elfiqri Ashriq, 21, Xavier Teng, 21, Nicholas Yeo, 22, showcase a YuMi robot performing Chinese calligraphy at a preview session held at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall yesterday.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

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 wrote tian xia wei gong (the world belongs to all), a slogan used by Chinese revolutionary figure Sun Yat Sen for 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," he said yesterday. "However, computers can store vast amounts of information, such as generations' worth of works. In contrast, the human brain is limited."

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 go on display at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery as part of ongoing efforts by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to tap on techology and innovation.

Said Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive for policy and community: "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 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 her Year 3 students helped to optimise the robot's movements by using advanced calculations, and programming it to effectively perform the precise and delicate movements required of a calligrapher.

Student Xavier Teng, 21, said they 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 can be viewed from 10am to 3pm at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall on Saturday and at the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery on Sunday. Members of the public can also sign up for a one-hour workshop by Mr Ma on basic calligraphy techniques at $5 a slot.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2021, with the headline 'Robot pens Chinese calligraphy strokes'. Subscribe