WiC’s rich history of reporting on robots kicked off more than a decade ago with the spectacular creations of amateur inventor Wu Yulu, who made machines that could light his cigarettes and pull his rickshaw to the shops.
There was a strong focus on family in his product line. “Every robot is like my child,” Wu explained at the time, “and they all have my surname.”
In a similar vein, we bring you important news this week about the launch of “SenseRobot”, a robotic arm that likes to play Xiangqi (Chinese chess) against human challengers.
Promoting the new machine as a ‘chess buddy’, its manufacturer SenseTime says that it caters to different playing styles and skill levels. It can also teach Chinese chess to new players with an introductory mode that has been certified by the Chinese Xiangqi Association, which promotes the game.
Footage of the robot shows a sleek-looking contraption not much bigger than a box of cereal, boasting a single robotic arm that moves counters around the board.
But the product launch is also being cleverly promoted around the theme of family life, with a marketing campaign that shows kids rushing home from school to play against the robot as their parents and grandparents look on delightedly.
No doubt the government prefers China’s children to become compulsive chess players than stay glued to their smartphones all day and Xu Li, the SenseTime chief executive, labours the point in introducing his new creation as a way of bringing enjoyment and “emotional connection” to the whole family.
“Our goal is to create a robot that can physically ‘think’ and ‘act’ with our leading AI technology, bring industrial-grade AI technology into every family, and carry out real interactions with children and elder family members,” he explains, claiming it supports children through their developmental years and makes technology more intuitive for older people.
SenseTime has emerged as the largest of China’s AI firms, with a focus on image recognition technology in applications best known for surveillance and security, but also in deployments in scenarios like traffic management and inventory control.
However, despite exhaustive media coverage of China’s advantages in artificial intelligence (said to centre around the richness of the data that it has available, used for fine tuning the algorithms that underpin machine learning), most of the leading AI firms have been struggling to get into profit.
For that, analysts generally blame higher costs in research and development, as well as challenges in maximising incomes from sales in the key industry verticals, where government customers are reluctant to pay licencing fees and middlemen and integrators make most of the sales, negotiating lower prices for bulk orders from suppliers.
Challenges like these mean that SenseTime wants to expand its offering into new applications for consumers, where it might exert more influence over pricing than business-to-business sales. So where chess buddy takes the lead, other family-loving androids may soon follow.
SenseRobot is available for purchase on Tmall, with the standard version priced at Rmb1,999 ($299), and the professional model costing more at Rmb2,499.
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