The Rise of China as a Robot Nation

One day I was taking a taxi in Guangzhou, China to get from the airport to a hotel. The taxi arrived at a toll station. There were six lanes in the station, three of which were occupied by robotic toll operators, and the other three were still manned by human toll operators. “How stupid,” laughed the taxi driver, “the government wasted a lot of money on these stupid robots.” Then, the driver headed towards a lane occupied by human operators. As I sat in the taxi, I estimated that about 80% of drivers still chose human operators, but 20% opted for robotic toll operators. By Dr Shaoshan Liu is CEO and Founder of PerceptIn, an intelligent robotics company.

Robotic toll operators rely on computer vision (CV) technology to automatically detect the license plate, voice recognition (VR) technology to pick up what the driver is saying, and natural language processing technology (NLP) to have a simple conversation with the driver, mainly to ask him to pay the toll. From my observations, these robots are not yet as efficient as their human counterparts.

After the taxi arrived at the hotel, I had lunch with a friend at the hotel restaurant. Surprisingly, no waiter was delivering food from the kitchen to our table – everything was done by robots. The robots are indeed very smart: they rely on Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology to navigate efficiently through a moving crowd or narrow passage. I said to the restaurant owner, “The last time I came, I didn’t see those robots. What prompted you to adopt them? “. The owner replied, “It’s really hard to hire people at a reasonable cost these days, and it’s much more affordable to deploy robots.”

Today in China, the robotics industry has seen a huge leap forward, especially in the past five years. We have observed that robots are gradually becoming an integral part of people’s daily lives in China. Besides the two examples above, when you check into a hotel, there is a high chance that a delivery robot will deliver what you need to your room. When you order food and groceries, in some cities, robots deliver food from the restaurant or supermarket to your doorstep. In the evening, when you walk along the north bank of the Pearl River in Guangzhou, you are likely to come across a fabulous air show performed by a swarm of robotic drones. At home, robotic vacuum cleaners have become standard household appliances for many Chinese families, along with refrigerators and air conditioners.

Recognizing the serious problem of its aging population, the Chinese government has made huge investments in the robotics industry over the past decade. Last year, China went a step further by making the development of the robotics industry a national strategic priority in its 14th five-year plan. These efforts have definitely paid off, since China has become one of the leading countries in robot manufacturing and consumption.

For robots that are not advanced enough to perform a specific task, the government will encourage these technologies through its procurement programs, not only to provide funds, but also to provide use cases and data to to improve robots, for example in the context of toll operations. For robots that prove to be more efficient than their human counterparts, the market economy will provide positive feedback for their continued improvement and expansion, such as in the hospitality industry.

The development of the government-subsidized robot industry and the integration of robots into the daily lives of Chinese people have given rise to a very complex supply chain system. By combining the elements of this complex supply chain system, a wide variety of robots can be designed and manufactured in a short time and at an affordable cost.

The crown jewel of the robotics industry in China today is the booming intelligent electric vehicle (IEV) industry. Automotive manufacturing has one of the longest and most complex supply chains of any industry. In China, many start-ups have emerged in recent years to focus on different smart electric vehicle industry verticals. These start-ups are able to rapidly boost the development and maturity of China’s electric vehicle supply chain. Once China’s EVI industry matures, many components in its supply chain will be able to be used in various robotic applications.

If this trend continues, China could become the world’s first robotic nation, a nation whose economic productivity is powered by robots rather than humans.

Article translated from Forbes US – Author: Shaoshan Liu

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