Internet & Tech

Doing the robot

Cheetah boss upsets China’s robotics community with negative assessment


Fu Sheng: outspoken tycoon

At the beginning of the movie iRobot, Will Smith’s character, Detective Spooner is saved by a robot after he crashes into a river and his car sinks into oblivion. But it seems unlikely any of the world’s current crop of robots would be similarly capable of coming to the aid of Cheetah Mobile founder and CEO, Fu Sheng.

Fu, who claims he is scared of water, launched his first robotic product line recently by jumping into the pool at Beijing’s Water Cube, where the aquatic events of the 2008 Olympics were held. He didn’t need saving on that occasion. That is just as well as he doesn’t think a robot would currently be capable of rescuing him.

Indeed,once he had dried off, Fu argued that it is “almost impossible to find a truly useful robot”. He then proceeded to slam pretty much every other manufacturer on the planet for false advertising.

His targets included Jiaojiao, a chat-bot who has conversations with customers at a bank in Beijing and Sophia, a robot made by a Hong Kong-based firm. ‘She’ was the first robot to be given citizenship by Saudi Arabia last year and has even played rock, paper, scissors with US chatshow host, Jimmy Kimmel.

Fu informed delegates that a human operates Jiaojiao behind the scenes, while Sophia’s dialogue is pre-recorded. He concluded that the industry is a long way from developing true AI,not least because we “don’t even know how complicated we humans are”. He added that, “if man is created by God then God is an unsurpassed product manager”.

His remarks have not been well received by many of his industry peers, particularly Jesse Wang, head of the Robot Founder Club (RFC), who is threatening to sue Fu on behalf of its 130 members. Wang also wrote on his WeChat account that Cheetah’s own newly launched robots not only fail to advance robotics, but are also far more expensive than their peers.

Fu himself remains unapologetic.

“They dislike the way I expressed myself,” he has since told reporters. “I can change that, but I can’t alter the fact that the industry has technical problems. No one ever talks about user needs.”

Fu added that Cheetah has to make the jump from software to robotic hardware because the world is transitioning to a phase where a few tech companies could control the entire industry chain.

The New York-listed company is currently best-known for its suite of mobile and PC system performance tools such as Clean Master, Android’s leading optimisation app.

In March it unveiled five new robots: a smart speaker called Cheetah Voicepod, a receptionist robot called Cheetah GreetBot, a children’s companion called Cheetah FriendBot, a roaming vending machine called Cheetah VendBot and a robotic barista called Cheetah Café.

Fu believes Cheetah’s suite of new products will move robotics away from industrial to consumer end-use. He says they will also help to manage China’s demographic decline and free people from “repetitive, everyday tasks so they can devote more energy to thinking, innovating and enjoying life”.

Such might be the case for the world’s receptionists, child minders and baristas were they to enjoy Fu’s wealth. And if his latest move is successful, it will propel Cheetah’s $1.8 billion value higher.

Cheetah’s robotics arm, Orion, may be set to join China’s estimated 164 unicorns. The government released figures at the end of March, which showed that 60% of these companies hailed (by value) from four sectors: fintech, e-commerce, smart hardware and transport.

Analysts believe that robotics could contribute about 2% to 3% of Cheetah’s near-term earnings and the company has lined up an impressive array of clients.

Property firm SOHO will use the GreetBots at its shared office spaces and Xiaomi will use them in its retail stores, while will deploy VendBots, a roaming vending machine.

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