In 2018, China managed to bring robots into people’s daily life. Warehouse robot workers, automated restaurants, android anchormen and drones postmen: robotics has surely been one of Beijing’s priorities this year
In worldwide imagination what represents the future is surely robotics. Since we were kids, movies and cartoons set in the future show Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the form of robots living among humans. Even if we still think it as a sci-fi scenario, during 2018 China demonstrated that we are more close to this futuristic image than we might think.
Western countries still have difficulties to understand how PRC “Great Leap” in the hi-tech sector is changing the world but the great Asian power, for its part, took the year that is ending to lay the foundations to become the next hi-tech pole and to dominate the world of robotics.
The goal to become an AI superpower is scheduled to be reached by 2030, but Beijing does not seem to waste time. Thanks to the Made in China 2025 plan, the Dragon is already very close to rewriting the global geography of hi-tech innovation but it now aims to bring AI into everyday life.
According to the Chinese leadership, robotics will be a key cog in Made in China 2025 strategy. PRC’s robot-maker will dominate the domestic market, thus the goal is to supply 50% of local demand by 2020, rising to 70% by 2025.
The road to the robotics supremacy was implemented in 2017 when The State Council released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. This project outlines the country’s strategy to build a domestic AI industry worth nearly $ 150 billion in the next few years and to become the leading AI power by 2030.
© Unsplash. Since 2015, China witnessed a huge growth of industries dedicated to the development of AI, reaching the number of 4040 AI companies in May 2018, whose 26% is located in Beijing.
The project divides goals into three phases. By 2020, the plan aims to bring Chinese AI up to global standards thanks to important achievements and innovations in the robotics sector. Then, by 2025, it aims to start establishing laws and regulations in the field while implementing intelligent manufacturing, agriculture, urban planning, and medicine. Finally, the last phase will bring AI to be deeply involved in daily life and China to become the world’s leading AI developer by 2030.
The Plan thus officially marked the development of the AI sector as a national priority and part of the broader Made in China 2025 plan, which guides the country’s industrial modernization encouraging companies to embrace automation.
Compared to last year when the Middle Kingdom purchased up to 141,000 industrial robots, whose three-quarters came from foreign imports, in 2018 the robotics market was the hi-tech sector that has seen more Chinese innovations.
A report released by the International Data Corporation revealed that Chinese spending on robots and related services is expected to increase rapidly between 2018 and 2022, with an annual growth of 27%. In 2022 the figure expected will be that of $ 80 billion with its market size over 38% of the total.
In the last few months, the great Asian country has launched several AI initiatives in order to improve efficiency and lower costs in the consumer services field. The category that benefited the most by robotics is probably the logistics sector, where not only robots work in the warehouses helping to build a modern distribution market, but they could also be used to deliver goods directly to customers’ homes.
During the last and the greatest Global Shopping Festival, Alibaba-owned Cainiao Smart Logistics Network managed to handle 1 billion delivery orders in 24 hours for the first time thanks to advanced technologies.
© Alizila.com. AI technology was fundamental in the success of the Alibaba’s “Single Day” , whose logistics company Cainiao Network used robots with automated driving to process 1bn orders.
Since it opened the biggest automated warehouse in the Middle Kingdom, the company placed itself at the forefront of the logistics industry. Part of a broader Future Park, the 160,000-square meter complex is run by Internet of Things (IoT) applications, big data, edge computing, and AI.
According to researches, worldwide sales of logistics robots will reach $ 22.4 billion by the end of 2021 while robot units’ shipments will grow from 40,000 to 620,000 units per year.
Within the Future Park, more than 500 self-charging Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) drive, load and unload products reducing the processes’ timing and improving the warehouse’s efficiency.
For what concerns products delivery, instead, the Chinese delivery company SF Express won the first drone operator license in the PRC, which allows the company to start to drop off goods via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in pilot zones designated by the Chinese aviation authority very soon.
However, 20 self-driving delivery robots already arrived in Beijing last June. Launched by the Chinese leading e-commerce platform JD.com, drones are currently delivering goods to the residential communities nearby JD’s distribution center in Beijing’s Haidian district. JD.com uses UAVs equipped with radar and sensors to help them navigate around the city, including obeying traffic lights.
Nevertheless, logistics is not the only sector that brings robotics into our daily life. This year, Alibaba launched the idea to put intelligent interactive technologies at the service of the tourism industry and of hotel guests building the first automated hotel in China, more precisely in Hangzhou.
Called FlyZoo Hotel, the structure hosts a robot at the reception that through the facial recognition deals with the registration of guests while various routine operations are automated for an experience with the least possible human interference. The robotic intelligence is called Space Egg and combines AGV technology with communication and facial recognition abilities.
© South China Morning Post. The fully automated restaurant operates via radio frequency identification attached to every object that communicates with robotic arms to select the right dish.
Following the same idea that sees androids at the service of the customer, the first fully robot-run restaurant opened in Beijing in October. The automated restaurant is born from the collaboration of the well-known Haidilao hotpot chain and the Japanese technology giant Panasonic and hosts robot-waiters, whose arms communicate with radio frequency identification attached to every object.
In this case, not only AI brings innovation to the service of customers but it also allows the company to lower the costs of personnel while increasing efficiency.
The search for innovation as well as the seeking of greater efficiency at a lower cost is what brought the Chinese news agency Xinhua to launch the first android anchorman in its own newscast.
In early November, the robotic anchorman introduced himself to the world in a tailored suit with particularly human facial expressions. According to Xinhua, the new “employee” will be able to improve over time thanks to the deep learning algorithms. Moreover, the fact that the android is always ready to air 24/7 will reduce staff costs. In fact, in the introductory video, the robot said he “will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into the system uninterrupted.”
© Xinhua News. Xinhua’s first English AI anchorman made debut at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, China is the world’s largest industrial robot maker, accounting for one-third of the world’s demand. Because of this large production, the PRC’s National Science Academy launched the Robotics and Intelligent Manufacturing Innovation Institute in October with the goal to aggregate robotics research resources in order to boost the development of intelligent manufacturing.
The Institute was built in Shenyang, capital of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, where over 40 robotics companies already established. The city’s robot industry output reached $ 1.3 billion in 2017, an increase of 28.6% on an annual basis, and it also hosts the country’s leading robot intelligent manufacturing company, Siasun Robot & Automation Co. Ltd.
The Dragon’s goal to reach the hi-tech supremacy through the robotics industry goes hand in hand with companies’ need to reduce costs while improving performances. Therefore, while individual Chinese enterprises introduce new technologies contributing to change their own sector, for the PRC, robots remain a top priority for technological investment.
“Robots are the jewel in the crown for the manufacturing industry, a new frontier for our industrial revolution,” said Xin Guobin, China’s vice minister of industry, as he opened the 2018 World Robot Conference in Beijing.
© People’s Daily. Last August, Beijing hosted the 2018 World Robot Conference showcasing both China’s dominance in the robotics field and the industry’s diverse applications for bots.
Although robots are now widely used in many areas, this year China introduced AI directly in people lives not only through the supply chain but also through TV news or common leisure activities such as going to a restaurant or staying in a hotel.
In addition, in 2018, Chinese levels of realism and efficiency marveled the whole world. Nevertheless, while someone is frightened to see robots replacing those professional figures first related to human experience, a good part of people is fascinated by the endless possibilities that this may bring in our daily lives.
The question now is: if the Dragon was able to reach so many results over last year, how far will it go at the end of the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in 2030?
From the foundations laid, it is not difficult to imagine China will reach the hi-tech supremacy way before the time expected. Therefore, if the Middle Kingdom is going to dominate the world of robotics, the sci-fi scenario we used to imagine thanks to books and movies will not belong to the future anymore.
Now that the imagination has come into reality, China must be ready to realize the unthinkable.
MORE ON THIS TOPIC