Internet & Tech

Rise of the machine

The changing faces of Chinese-made robots

Farmer Wu Yulu drives his rickshaw pulled by a his self-made walking robot in Beijing

China robot 1.0: made by farmer Wu Yulu in 2009

When we first wrote about China’s robot makers seven years ago, we gave the amateur enthusiasts like Wu Yulu most of the attention because of their wacky designs (see photo above, first used in WiC4).

Since then the sector has turned much more professional, especially in industrial automation. However, the media prefers to keep its focus on the more human-like performances. That was probably why Premier Li Keqiang played a round of badminton against a beetle-like droid called Champion last month, as a means to publicise the campaign for greater automation in the 13th Five-Year Plan.

The score was evenly matched, although WiC suspects that organisers may have gone easy on China’s prime minister because Champion is supposed to be capable of playing against two humans at once.

Another success in the publicity stakes was a knee-high entertainment robot produced by Shenzhen’s UBTECH. State television even featured 540 of them backflipping in perfect sync for CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala show in February. It was one of the few bits of the performance that people actually liked.

Some of the other experiments have been less successful. A chain of restaurants in Guangzhou had to lay off its robotic staff because they couldn’t pour drinks, take orders or carry soup. Similarly, a security droid from the National Defence University failed to impress when it was unveiled last month. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Dalek – the longstanding enemy of BBC’s Dr Who – the “anbot” was propelled by a set of small wheels. Plenty of netizens then pointed out that criminals could evade the robotic enforcer simply by climbing up a few stairs.

China robot 2.0: Jiajia, made by a university in 2016

China robot 2.0: Jiajia, made by a university in 2016

Other Chinese have started to feel unsettled by the idea of robots carrying out more human tasks. When an artificial intelligence company in Chengdu said it was producing a robot that will sit the national college entrance exam next year, many questioned whether this wasn’t going too far. “Exams should test emotional intelligence and creativity as well as knowledge. What does it say about our exams if a robot can pass them” one blogger asked.

Two other robots have done much better with local audiences, especially Jiajia, an ultra-lifelike humanoid built by the University of Science and Technology in Hefei. She has dewy silicon skin and long dark hair, and her inventors say she has been imbued with “traditional Chinese values”. Though not as sophisticated as the best of the Japanese humanoids, Jiajia does boast a sense of humour. When her creator introduced her to the media last month she reprimanded photographers for choosing an unflattering angle, complaining that “if you shoot me like that my face will look fat”.

The other droid to steal a few hearts is Xian’er, a little monk who rolls around a temple in Beijing dispensing Buddhist wisdom. Netizens love him. “Siri eat your heart out. Xian’er is much wiser,” said one fan, referring to Apple’s intelligent phone assistant.

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