Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 07 — The Robot Maestro (Andrew PETHER, Universal Robots)

Oscar Fuchs
Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Oscar Fuchs

Andrew Pether has spent a decade in the field of robotics engineering and collaborative robots in China. So he is perfectly placed to observe the world of innovation and competition in this unique space in China.

Original Date of Release: October 18, 2022.

Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 07 — The Robot Maestro (Andrew PETHER, Universal Robots)


OF: ‘Repurpose-ability,’ baby.

AP: Yes!


OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.

We’ve got a great episode today, as well as two catch-up chats with previous guests at the end, so I will keep today’s intro short. Just a quick heads-up to non-native English speakers today that there will be a few - but only a few - technical expressions in today’s show, so head to the Mosaic of China website to follow the transcript, or watch the YouTube version which has captions running alongside the audio and graphics. So if you hear us use the word ‘torque’ it’s not T-A-L-K, it’s T-O-R-Q-U-E. Similarly, ‘brake’ is not B-R-E-A-K, it’s B-R-A-K-E. And we mention AI, which of course stands for Artificial Intelligence.

Speaking of the YouTube version of the show, when today’s guest introduces his object, you’ll hear in the audio version that there are some long pauses. This is not only because I wanted you to have a sense of what was happening in real time, but also because it corresponds with a video that I took with my phone. So it’s worth dipping into the YouTube version if you want to see what’s happening at that point of the recording.

Alright, power up! Let’s start the show.

[Part 1]

OF: Thank you so much for coming, Andrew.

AP: Thank you for having me.

OF: Your full name is Andrew Pether, correct.

AP: That is correct. It’s… ‘Son of Peter’ is the original derivation.

OF: Is that right?

AP: Yeah.

OF: Well we've got a lot in common, because my father is called Peter. So if you're ‘Pether’, then maybe so am I. Whenever I have a Brit sitting opposite me, I'm always more conscious of my British accent. How British do you think you are, are you like many many many generations British?

AP: Yes, quite a long way back, there’s nothing interesting. The 23andMe came back…

OF: Oh right.

AP: Like, British, Scandinavian, all kind of the same sort of thing that's been washing around in Britain for a millennium.

OF: Yes. And the person who we know each other through is our mutual friend Nick Sherwood, another Brit with an equally British name. Shout out to Nick. Well, the first question I ask everyone sitting in that chair is, what object did you bring that in some way typifies your life here in China?

AP: I brought a robot with me.

OF: I was wondering what the hell that thing you've dragged in was. So why don't you open it, and let's have a look.

AP: Sure.

OF: OK, I think this might count as the largest object anyone has brought.

AP: OK yeah it’s 33 kilogrammes.

OF: I could actually give you a hand here, but I'm just sitting here watching you do it.

AP: No, no, don’t worry.

OF: This is great audio.

AP: Ah, OK.

OF: Oooh.

AP: So yeah, OK.

OF: Right. Well this is quite elaborate. So why don't you first of all explain the different components that we're looking at right now?

AP: Sure. So probably the easiest-to-identify part is the the arm here. So this is a collaborative industrial robot arm. This is the smallest one that we make, the larger ones, definitely… this would not be feasible. But this one, it’s just about manageable to take it around. So we use this setup for customer demos. With this kind of lightweight of a product, it revolutionises the way you can do those sorts of demos and interactions with new customers. Because if you've got something that's absolutely enormous, there's no way you can take it into someone's office meeting room, just plonk it down, and show him how it works. So it's quite an advantage.

OF: Absolutely. And then connected to that is..?

AP: So this silver box here is the controller. Everywhere you see one of these blue plastic caps, there is a motor, gearbox, brake, all other stuff inside there. And then they connect with one cable back through to this controller.

OF: OK, then there's a cable connected to..?

AP: This is the ‘teach pendant’.

OF: A ‘teach pendant’?

AP: I don't know why it's called a pendant, it's not like you would ever… Actually no, some of them which only have buttons on them, maybe you would wear them around your neck, and that's why they called it a pendant. But this is essentially an iPad with an emergency stop button on it. So it's got a nice graphical programming interface. If you intuitively know how to use a touchscreen - from your smartphone or from your iPad - then you should be pretty good to do with this thing as well.

OF: Which means, are you going to do a practical demonstration right now?

AP: I think I should.

OF: I’m so excited. Even though I knew you were in robots, I didn't think you would bring a robot. So let's see how it goes.


OF: Maybe while we're waiting for it to boot up, I can see the logo - I can see the name of the company - so maybe you can introduce the company that you work for right now.

AP: Sure, yes. So the company is called Universal Robots. We're kind of the original creators of this sub-genre of industrial robotics: collaborative robots. It was started by a few guys out of university in Denmark, they started the project in 2005, released the first robot in 2008, and we've been iterating on those designs ever since. We're now part of the Teradyne group, which is a Boston company. But yeah, as I said, we were the first ones to make this type of robot commercially successful, and there must be 2-3-400 companies making very similar products now. So it's a form of flattery, right?

OF: Yes.

AP: That there are so many people that make things that resemble our products, on the outside at least. But the inner workings, I think we still have a fairly superior offering in that way.

OF: And what is your role at Universal Robots?

AP: So I'm currently the lead of the Global Applications team in Asia. So I've been with this company for eight years now, and I've done a number of different roles. And it's all been focused around how our product works, and how it can be deployed into different scenarios and manufacturing facilities.

OF: Well it's your job to explain and demonstrate these robots, so I'm going to put you to the test now. So is it ready, has it been fired up?

AP: It has, yes. Let me just…

OF: All right, take it away.

AP: OK. So if you look at this, you'll notice it looks a bit like an arm. So it needs to be integrated with its surroundings, it needs to have something put on the end of the robot arm here as well.

OF: I see. So this is just the base setup, and then you can put other things on top of it later on.

AP: Yes.

OF: Yeah, OK.

AP: And that makes it incredibly flexible. So this could be used for assembling something, packaging something, picking something up from one place and putting it into a machine for some processing, all different kinds of things. Polishing, sanding, deburring, dispensing of glue, these kinds of things. You could put a screwdriver on the end - for like electronics assembly - so you're not getting any RSI, your job becomes a little bit less strenuous, and you get to work with a cool robot as well.

OF: OK. Well why don't we see how it moves.

AP: OK, sure. So I'm going to just add a waypoint in here, click ‘set,’ and then that's already where I want it to be. OK. And then I'm going to add a couple more, and just teach four different positions that I want it to cycle through. So number one is here. We’ll make number two a little bit higher, like this. And then number three can come over towards you Oscar, but not too close…

OF: Thank you.

AP: And then number four, down. So we've kind of got a rectangular sort of shape. And we can see on the screen here, that this is the… That's not quite a rectangle, but you can see the shape, the path that the robot is going to follow between these points. So then I just press ‘play’.

OF: Oh there it goes.

AP: Yep. So that's me moving into the first position. And then yeah, a very intuitive interface. There's a ‘play’ and a ‘pause’ button at the bottom. I actually got my two-year-old daughter doing this a couple of weeks ago, and she… I didn't even tell her how to press ‘play’, I was like “Can you can you press play?” And she found it, and knew exactly what to do.

OF: Oh right.

AP: So it's very very intuitive. So there we go, point number one, point number two, point number three, point number four. So…

OF: And that was in real time, you programmed it just as we were talking,

AP: Yes.

OF: Yeah.

AP: So then, in order to become more useful, you would probably need to have some other actions at these points as well. So the simplest kind of application is that we’d take one of these grippers, and we'd pick something up from one position, and we’d place it in another. So I would want to, say, go to this position here and close the gripper, and then move over to this one, and then open it. And then you can just build up your logic that way. And, yeah, it's pretty simple.

OF: Well, thank you so much. I think there have been some objects brought in for this podcast that have been in some ways interactive, but I think might be the most. Why don't we power it down, and then we can just talk without it. Well, thank you for that. And this is… a what kind of robot, did you say?

AP: This is a collaborative industrial robot. So meaning, humans and robots collaborating together to complete a task.

OF: And so how would you distinguish that from what I might have in my head as this traditional robot on a production line?

AP: There are a few different aspects. One of them is the safety aspect, so we have forced limitations on this type of robot. It's also a lot more lightweight, so when it moves it has less momentum, it can stop more easily. And it's constantly checking that there are no obstructions to its path. And if something does block it, then it will sense that, and it will stop with a small amount of force applied.

OF: Right, I see. Because the idea is that it's the human and this robot working collaboratively, next to each other.

AP: Yes. The best example I think, is if you consider it as like a smart power tool. So, assembly tasks, where you maybe need to mount some electronics inside a casing - you probably need to put the casing in place, you need to put the circuit board in place, and then screw in five screws into that - you can still have the person there, putting everything into the jig, and then just push a button, and the robot can come in and drop those screws in very very quickly. These screws need to go in with a certain amount of torque. You could get RSI if you keep doing that for a while, that's not…

OF: Could you just explain ‘RSI’ for those that don't know.

AP: Repetitive Strain Injury. It’s commonly in the wrists and hands, like if you're trying to get a lid off a jar or something, and you do that over and over again, it really starts to take a toll on the muscles and the joints in your hands. So stuff like that, it's quite common that assembly tasks do require that sort of movement. And that's really tough on the human hand, we didn't evolve to do that sort of thing. Back strain as well, from heavy lifting, is another example of what a robot can take over as well. So it’s like a stepping stone to more complex automation projects.

OF: Yes. And this is what makes it a little less intimidating, in terms of the fear that robots are going to replace people. It's not about replacing the human worker, it's about collaborating with the human.

AP: Yeah, ‘augmenting their work’ is how we look at it. So from my experiences in China and across Asia, the last few years visiting so many of these factories, they're not places that you would ever really want to be spending all of your time doing the same thing over and over again. And we can help chip away at those worst worst jobs that people are doing, as they're working like robots - picking something up, sticking it inside something else, and just doing that thousands of times per day - stop people from having to do those. And then you can maintain or expand the same workforce, but expand your output with the same number of people. And maybe we can improve people's quality of life with this type of product. The data does show that is true, people don't shrink the size of their workforce, they buy robots to increase their quality and to increase their throughput.

OF: There you go. Because it is a little bit politically tricky, isn't it? If we're talking about automation, it can be sometimes seen as at the expense of human labour, correct?

AP: Yes. But generally, companies struggle more if they don't automate than if they do. So, I mean, if the choice is getting some robots in to work alongside the people that you already have, or potentially going completely bust, or having to outsource to another part of the world, that's definitely a worse option. So this also helps bring back production closer to the consumers of the products, which is good from a sustainability perspective as well. it means you don't have to burn all those fuels to ship things around the world, you can run these processes ‘in the community,’ almost.

OF: Yes. You're reminding me of the same kind of arguments that were made with 3D printing, where it becomes more localised, closer to the consumer. And you can fit a 3D printer in your house, and you can fit this into your house.

AP: Yep, exactly.

OF: You wouldn't call that a robot though, right? Is that…? That is a robot?

AP: You could potentially call a 3D printer a robot. If you wanted - at a stretch - you could call your washing machine a robot. Something that takes a task that was traditionally done by humans, and automates it, and has some kind of mechanical interaction with its environment. I would generally draw the line with the washing machine and the 3D printer not being robots, because they’re not really ‘repurpose-able.’ ‘Repurpose-able?’ Yeah, we're gonna say ‘repurpose-able.’

OF: ‘Repurpose-ability’, baby.

AP: Yes!

OF: Yeah, this is your personal way of defining what a robot is? Or this is some kind of universally accepted term?

AP: I don't think there is one absolutely fixed definition of a robot, they vary from source to source. Broadly, people think about something that in some way resembles a human.

OF: Right.

AP: Yeah. So that's the most high level definition of it. But then if you're looking at stuff like autonomous cars, that doesn’t…

OF: That’s a robot.

AP: Yeah. Although I guess that's more replacing a horse than a human. It's a constant evolution of work, of what people do in order to feed themselves. It's changed constantly. When someone invented the wheel, that took away the job of the person who was maybe carrying someone previously, or the donkey that was doing it. This is the way that things evolve, and we just need to ensure that it has good outcomes.

OF: Yeah. Very good. Well what is the competition that you're facing here in China?

AP: The innovation landscape here is unique and interesting. The fact that everything is made here, means that you can iterate on designs extremely fast. So if the factory that's making your prototypes is 10 minutes down the road, you can send them something and they'll update it, and they will build you a new one, and send it within a day or two.

OF: Right.

AP: And you can evolve your product offering very very quickly. And that's not just for robotics, that's for all different sorts of things. And the way people look at intellectual property here is kind of different as well. It’s not as taboo to kind of copy something that someone else has done, it is kind of seen as sort of a mark of respect, almost. “This is a great thing, I want to make something like this.” So that has resulted in lots of products that are very similar to ours coming out of the Chinese market.

OF: I'm guessing specifically products like yours. Because it would be a lot harder for them to try and compete with the big robots that we would see coming out of, let's say, Japan or Germany, right?

AP: Yeah, there have been European and Japanese players that have been doing this for 30/40/50 years, and that technology is mature, I would say. Whereas the whole sphere of collaborative robots only started 15 years ago, pretty much. So the policymakers here see that sub-section of industrial robots as one that China can still potentially catch up and take the lead on. And that's why there is a lot of investment going into this area as well, in China.

OF: Well that might make your life a little bit more full of headache than otherwise it might have been.

AP: I mean, we're all working towards the same end goal. So ultimately it's good, it's going to improve the lives of more people. And all of the local competition, I would say, is striving to have a product that is 50/60% as good as ours, and try to drive prices down. But for the most easy to programme, the most feature laden, the most mature, the most stable platform, then customers are still choosing ours. So if it's easy to buy, but not easy to use, those people are never going to come back.

OF: Well let's talk about that, then. So the ‘ease of use’, what you mean about that is, you need less than less input from the human being, correct?

AP: Yes.

OF: And this is where it's not just about the mechanics of it, it's about converging other technologies on to the mechanics of it.

AP: Yeah.

OF: So what are these technologies?

AP: So as I've said, we've got an interface for controlling - for programming - this system that is a big step in the right direction towards ‘ease of use’, compared to what robot systems looked like previously. But you are telling the robot exactly what to do in every scenario, that's essentially what the logic of the programme that you're writing is. “If you find this situation, you need to do this.” If something isn't exactly how it expected it to be, you're probably just going to have the robot stop and say “I need help.” There's no way to deal with variation in the environment. But there are things going on that look like they're going to make a difference in that way. When we come to have more AI and vision processing involved in robot applications, instead of you specifically having to say what to do in every scenario, if it can see something is not quite right - because it's looking all the time - and it can compare that to previous scenarios that its seen before, then it becomes easier, and you'll have to spend less time telling it exactly what to do.

OF: Yes, these small robots - this convenience - and then you converge that with the vision: it can see what's going on around it, then react to what it can see, and learn how to do it differently. That's the future, right?

AP: Yeah. And there's maybe even more of a need for that with collaborative scenarios, because people are inherently unpredictable. They don't do things exactly the same every time. So you need a system that can deal with those variances, and continue working.

OF: Uh-huh. Yeah, which then makes it more productive. But then this is where it also gets into scary territory, right? Because it's scary enough when it's just the robotics, we're talking about literally just taking over jobs of human beings. But then when we go into AI… And you're looking at me with a very neutral expression, like “Oh, what's he going to say?” Come on, you must have heard this. The whole scariness about robots taking over the world. I mean, even though you're working on this very specific thing, what part do you play in this?

AP: I think these sort of AI tasks that we're talking about here, are in a very narrow space. It's about making it slightly more capable to deal with variation in one scenario. This kind of broad AI - where it knows how to handle all different kind of scenarios, and make decisions - like, that it's a very long way away from what we're talking about in this kind of narrow space here. I don't think we're that close to it yet, I'm not exactly in that field. But from what I see from the sorts of AI tasks that we're looking at integrating here, it's not that.

OF: But you're close to having AI in these small robots, so that it can start to learn. That's coming up in the next iteration or two of these robots?

AP: Yeah, there are third party systems that can augment our products with that sort of functionality.

OF: Ah.

AP: As soon as the robustness, the reliability of those systems, and the price comes down, then yeah.

OF: You're talking about the robustness. But then, the driverless vehicles, for example. I mean, some experts say it's a matter of years, and some experts say it'll never happen. Where are you on that spectrum?

AP: I think we're quite close. Tesla has rolled out their autopilot software, which - to cover themselves - you still have to be in the driver's seat, with your eyes open, and your hands on the wheel in order for it to function. But it can essentially do it. I've not tried it myself, I've tried an older version where it would just stay in lane, but not the full autopilot kind of thing. Yeah, it seems to be there. I mean, you still need the legislation side of things.

OF: Yes.

AP: So there is a hell of a lot of regulation that needs to go around this. And that's probably what's going to slow things down, is that we've got to be really certain that this is all right, and safe, and everyone signs off on it.

OF: Yeah.

AP: So that's what's gonna slow things down potentially.

OF: Except for, if there is some country in the world that fast-tracks it, because they want to have the first mover advantage. Can you imagine that it might be a kind of regulatory race to the bottom, to try and be at the head of the competition?

AP: I can't imagine anyone being reckless with this.

OF: Yeah.

AP: Because the consequences are quite severe.

OF: Yeah, yeah, of course. I mean, I'm interested in your story, because it's not everyone you meet on the streets who comes from the world of robotics. It's one of the reasons why, when I first met you, I was very excited to understand what you do. How did you get into this field?

AP: So, from the robotics degree in England, I had a Chinese professor, and I wanted to travel when I finished my undergraduate degree, and he helped me get a job in his previous university where he did his PhD in 西安 [Xī’ān].

OF: Ah, 西安 [Xī’ān]. That was your first place in China.

AP: It was, that is my 老家 [lǎojiā] in China, yeah.

OF: Yeah, I've only been as the tourist, what's it like to live in 西安 [Xī’ān]?

AP: Phenomenal. So I went from the north of England to that ancient capital of 13 dynasties in the middle of China. And these beautiful city walls, and then you've got the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. And then you add to that some fantastic noodles, which also made me enjoy it even more. The 西安 [Xī’ān]-ese cuisine is still my favourite type of Chinese food.

OF: How do you define 西安 [Xī’ān]-ese cuisine?

AP: Wide wide noodles, with a healthy dose of chilli and garlic and oil. Intense flavours, I think. But yeah, very good.

OF: And these are handmade noodles.

AP: Yes, yeah.

OF: Would they be as delicious if a robot had made them?

AP: I think so. A well-programmed robot, yes.

OF: And then, that was when you first started working?

AP: Yes, so 50% of the time working in the university. So there are a number of student robotics competitions in China and around the world, and I was helping to prepare some of the student teams for those competitions, football competition. So using either robots with wheels, or little humanoid legged robots, to try to win a football competition. And you basically just set them down, and then your programme has to make all of decisions for the whole game. So you can't make any adjustments, you’ve just got to kind of…

OF: Watch it go.

AP: …Hope that you’ve programmed it well enough that you can deal with these different scenarios.


AP: That was interesting, I'd never been involved in those sorts of competitions before. But because I had a kind of different way of approaching challenges, maybe I could help them look at things from a different perspective. And then I spent the rest of my time in Chinese classes in the university as well. So that's kind of what got me hooked, and why I'm still here 15 years later.

OF: Oh wow, right. What is the future for you then? So do you see yourself staying in this field? Do you see yourself staying in China?

AP: Well, I think for the rest of my life I'm definitely going to be in and out of China. This is my third stint here now, I have gone and done other things and come back again. I think that's going to continue. I really enjoy the challenges of living here and the fulfilment that I get from speaking Mandarin and just interacting with people here. So maybe we'll be away for a little while again, and then come back again. But I think, yeah, this is a lifelong, career-long thing, my interaction with China.

OF: Well thank you Andrew.

AP: Thank you very much.

OF: Let's move on to Part 2.


[Part 2]

OF: So here are the 10 questions, I ask everyone who is sitting on that chair these same 10 questions. I'm not entirely sure what to expect from the likes of you, Andrew. Are you going to be robotic about these answers?

AP: We’ll see, won’t we.

OF: Let's jump in. Question 1, which comes from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?

AP: I’m gonna stay robotic on this one, in that there are now over a million industrial robots deployed in China. That’s almost three times as much as the next largest deployment base, which is Japan.

OF: Wow.

AP: So it's the centre of the robotic manufacturing world now. Japan, Korea, the U.S. and Germany are the next four, and I think it's - don’t hold me to it, but - somewhere in the realm of all those four put together are equal to what we've got set up in China.

OF: And is that just a function of there being that much more manufacturing in China?

AP: Yeah.

OF: Yeah. Next question, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?

AP: 入乡随俗 [Rùxiāng Suísú]: ‘When in Rome.’

OF: Ah.

AP: So ‘When you enter the village, do what the people do’, which I think has done me fairly well here in my years in China…

OF: Yes.

AP: …In that I'm willing to try anything, pretty much. And very happy to go into little places, and be able to chat with people, and just experience a little bit of what what their lives are like here. I really enjoy that. And I use it to justify maybe skipping in line in a train station or something…

OF: Oh no.

AP: …Every so often when I'm late. I'm like “Well that's just what you do here, isn’t it?”

OF: Yes. Oh dear me, yes.

AP: It's a good one.

OF: Yeah, I like it. Next question, which comes from naked Retreats: What is your favourite destination within China?

AP: Can you guess, based on the conversation that we've just had?

OF: I would it’s 西安 [Xī’ān].

AP: It is 西安 [Xī’ān], yeah. I love going back there.

OF: How often do you go back?

AP: I used to go there a couple of times a year. It's not been so much recently, maybe twice in the last three years, three times the last three years, something like that.

OF: Yeah. Which just goes to show how tricky it is to travel in these times, right?

AP: Yeah.

OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?

AP: The most, it’s going to have to be Taobao, I think.

OF: This is so funny, because I wouldn't put you as a Taobao kind of guy. Because normally it’s, like, fashionistas who are buying dresses, and who are buying all kinds of cute things. But no, even the robot guy is addicted to Taobao.

AP: Yeah, every electronics product, every electronics component, has an outlet from the factory straight on to Taobao that can be at your door within a couple of days.

OF: Oh wow.

AP: Yeah. And having bought all that stuff on Taobao, and then going to Singapore and seeing what the mark-up is, it's incredible.

OF: Yes.

AP: And you can see why the technology development is so rapid here as well.

OF: Yes.

AP: Because you can buy all this stuff and…

OF: Play around.

AP: Prototype, yeah.

OF: It's not as expensive as trying to do it elsewhere.

AP: Yeah.

OF: And then what about the thing you'd missed the least?

AP: Potentially, having to check the air quality in the mornings. That's a bit of a drag, and especially with little lungs to worry about.

OF: You mean your children?

AP: Yes. I think I have normal-sized lungs, but they have little lungs.

OF: You've got how many kids?

AP: Two.

OF: What age?

AP: Two-and-a-half, and nine months.

OF: Yes, this is it. Like, now I've stopped paying attention to it - and I have the feeling it's getting better, and so I kind of just live my life - but I guess when you have little kids, you start to get more “What is the index today,” right?

AP: Yeah. And it's improved so much since the early days. And the worst polluted days now are roughly on par with the least polluted days then.

OF: Yes. Next question, is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?

AP: Yes, I think that's why I'm still here. Just, things on the street. Even in Shanghai, which is a top level city, you still can walk around the corner and see things that you just don't understand why they're happening. But you love that they're happening. My wife told me - coming to meet me on Sunday - that she saw an old lady cuddling a duck on the street, on the way there. And it’s like "I don't know why… Why is that happening?” But I'm very happy that it is.

OF: Listen, the world needs much more duck cuddling than it has right now. I'm all for it. I'm trying to think if I've seen a duck being cuddled on the street. I think I've seen a monkey, I've seen a turtle… Of course dogs dressed in all kinds of clothing, but that I think is a global trend now, that’s not just Shanghai, right?

AP: Turtles on a stick.

OF: Yeah.

AP: I like those.

OF: Yeah, yeah. But that's so common, right? I think I see them once a week.

AP: Yeah.

OF: Next question, which comes from SmartShanghai: Where is your favourite place to go, to eat, drink, or hang out?

AP: We're living in 静安 [Jìng’ān], and there's a new development opened up quite close called 陕康里 [Shǎnkānglǐ].

OF: Oh yes.

AP: It has a number of bars and restaurants - it has a tap house with some decent beer and a courtyard that's away from the road - so you can drink beer and let the kids run around. It’s a nice combination.

OF: There you go.

AP: Not particularly cultural, but it’s easy.

OF: Yeah, you've got that combination of having a beer, but then also being a pseudo-responsible parent.

AP: Mmm. ‘Pseudo.’

OF: Next question, what is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?

AP: This is very hard, because the Taobao history goes back a long long way. The best one in recent memory is… When we returned to China in March 2020 - just before the borders closed - we had to do 14 days of home quarantine.

OF: Oh yeah.

AP: So there were a number of purchases to set up an adventure playground in our living room, with ball pits, and tunnels, and different climbing frames and stuff. I think I did a pretty good job with that one.

OF: I've got a feeling that you had more fun putting it up than your kid had playing with it.

AP: That's entirely possible.

OF: Very nice. This is the thing about having kids. When you have kids, you can sort of start to re-live your childhood, and become a kid yourself.

AP: Yeah, I now have an excuse to be as childish as I was in the interim between being a child myself and having children. But now I don't have to hide it so much.

OF: Because I don't have kids - and I'm now in my mid forties - and sometimes I wonder if I'm very childish because I don't have a kid. But maybe… men are just childish. That's the conclusion.

AP: Yeah.

OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?

AP: 阿姨 [Āyí] fight club.

OF: OK, let's have a look. Oh, I see what you mean. Can you explain what this is?

AP: This is a disagreement between two 阿姨 [āyí]s who decided to resolve it by kicking each other. And I'm not sure if I've actually seen this exact thing on the street. But it seems like a nice example of also something that still… maybe doesn't surprise me, but I just love seeing silly things happening on the street.

OF: Yes.

AP: And they happen quite a lot around here.

OF: Well, this makes me think of two things. The first thing is that this has been chosen before. In Season 02 there was a Belgian/English architect called Wendy Saunders, and she chose this exact favourite stick for the exact same reason. And it also reminds me of actually Episode 01 of Season 01, which was Philippe Gas, the CEO of Disneyland Shanghai, and he was saying how you see people shouting at each other on the streets, and - even to the extent that they might be violent, like this sticker - it is part of the way people communicate. It's the kind of energy that I enjoy being around, even though it can sometimes spill over into things like this sticker.

AP: Yeah, if you've never experienced it before, it seems like people are very angry. But that's not necessarily always the case, is it?

OF: Yes.

AP: It’s a different sort of etiquette.

OF: Next question, what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?

AP: It's been a while since I've sung it. But ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ by 10cc.

OF: What the hell is that?

AP: It's kind of ska/reggae-ish.

OF: Yeah, this is from the 70s, no?

AP: Yeah. But you can find it on the KTV systems, if you look hard enough.

OF: Oh, really?

AP: Yeah.

OF: I'm not sure I know it. Like, what is this song?

AP: I’m not gonna sing it, I'll recite the words to you if you want.

OF: Which one is it?

AP: “I don't like cricket”.

OF: Oh!

AP: “I love it.”

OF: OK, I know this one. This is such a deep cut in terms of British culture. I'm sure no-one else knows this song, apart from Brits,

AP: Er yeah, I think that's probably right, yeah.

OF: In case anyone doesn't know, it goes: “I don't like cricket. Oh no.”

AP: “I love it.”

OF: I can't stand cricket. Are you a cricket fan?

AP: No, not at all.

OF: God, if you were to sing that song at KTV, it would be the opposite of cross-cultural communication. It wouldn't bring people to you, it would completely repel people.

AP: I'm mainly in KTV for my own enjoyment, so that doesn’t really bother me. I know nobody else enjoys it when I sing, but I do sometimes.

OF: Very good. I would never have guessed that that was available at KTV in China. Even now, right, you find it?

AP: Yep.

OF: Oh god. And finally, Question 10, which comes to us from from JustPod, which is the studio we are recording this in today: What or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?

AP: So I think ‘what’: we talked a bit about the language before, and I think it inspires me to keep learning, and to keep learning more about the country. And just, I see characters that I don't know on the street every day, and I just still want to keep understanding what they mean, how you say them, where they come from. I guess that plugs into the engineering sort of attention-to-detail thing as well, that if I see something I don't know, I always want to pull out my phone and look it up. Which is considered as mildly antisocial by some, but I still do it. I'll never get to the end of the dictionary on that one.

OF: Yeah.

AP: There’s still always so much more to learn. And it fascinates me.

OF: Well said. Thank you so much, Andrew. I appreciate that you were able to talk about something which is very complicated, in a way which is quite accessible. I'm sure you dumbed it down, I don't know how many degrees. But I found it fascinating. I definitely look forward to seeing how this progresses. Some of me thinks it's for the better, and the other half is still a little bit scared. But thank you for at least taking the edge off the most scary parts.

AP: You're very welcome. Let's revisit it in 20 years and see where we’re at.

OF: That is, again, wishful thinking. Before I let you leave, tell me out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?

AP: So, Alex Mok. She is a Swedish architect, and I think she would be a great person for you to talk to.

OF: OK. Thank you. Short. Concise. Thanks again for your time today, Andrew.

AP: Thank you very much.


OF: So the biggest update since the time Andrew and I did this recording is that he and his family have moved to the U.S. He’s still with Universal Robots, and his new role is in global product innovation. And as Andrew mentioned, his career has always been in and out of China, so let’s see how long it takes before he’s back in this part of the world.

Please head to the Mosaic of China website or social media to see all the extra photos and graphics from today’s show, just do a search for mosaicofchina on Facebook or LinkedIn, or oscology on Instagram and WeChat. The most hilarious of all the photos Andrew shared was the one in which illustrates his interpretation of his favourite phrase in Chinese, which was 入乡随俗 [rùxiāng suísú]. I mention this in particular because the English equivalent phrase of ‘When in Rome’ goes some way to explain how these Chinese 成语 [chéngyǔ] idioms work. In English, you can just say “When in Rome,” you don’t need to say the whole phrase which explains that it’s about ‘doing as the Romans do.’ Neither do you need to know that the phrase originates from the letters of Pope Clement XIV in 1777. But you will certainly know how confusing it would be to say it to someone who is a beginner in English. So that will give you a sense of how confounding it is to try and cope with the hundreds of 成语 [chéngyǔ] that crop up in Chinese.

Today’s PREMIUM version of the show is another bumper edition, there’s an extra 20 minutes of content this week. As always, you’ll find all the information on how to subscribe at, but in the meantime here are a few clips:

[Clip 1]

OF: When you're looking at Taobao in the future, you'll start to see some Chinese competitors already put things up there.

AP: Yeah. I've found them on Taobao before.

[Clip 2]

AP: The shoulder joint on the human arm is crazy complicated, so we've kind of separated those out and just put them next to each other.

[Clip 3]

AP: I rock up with my suitcase and just drop it in between two people on the production line, it’s really not very disruptive.

[Clip 4]

AP: Elderly care for China, there aren't going to be as many younger family members to look after the older people.

[Clip 5]

OF: They have the bed which shoots Wallace down into his pants.

AP: I haven't quite managed to build that one yet.

[Clip 6]

AP: Robots jumping over crates and doing backflips: I do wonder when I see those videos, how heavily choreographed they are.

[Clip 7]

OF: I'm not gonna question it too much. I'm gonna just try and relax about this whole thing.

[Clip 8]

AP: 机器人 [Jīqìrén].

OF: 机器人 [Jīqìrén].

AP: ‘Machine man.’

OF: Seriously?

AP: Yeah.

[End of Audio Clips]

Andrew mentioned the innovation landscape in China, particularly among Chinese competitors. So a fascinating accompaniment to this episode is my chat with Gina Li from Season 01 Episode 06, who tells the exact flip-side to Andrew’s story. Of course another overlap is with the recent episode with the CTO Eric Liu in Episode 01 of this Season, whose work on the Metaverse in China is also converging with Artificial Intelligence. And finally, Andrew also mentioned the way people look at intellectual property here in China. So for an in-depth look into that world, you definitely need to listen to the episode with the lawyer Vittorio Franzese from Season 02 Episode 27.

Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. If you enjoy fairly technical conversations like today’s episode, then you’re also going to like the following catch-ups, firstly with the fire engineer Michael Kinsey from Season 02 Episode 25 and then with ‘the FinTech Philosopher’ himself, Srinivas Yanamandra. And we’ll be back with another full episode next week.

[Catch-Up Interview 1]

OF: Hello Michael.

MK: Hello.

OF: It is good to see you. I haven't seen you so much since we did our recording, but we have been in touch electronically all the time.

MK: Yeah, absolutely.

OF: Well for anyone who didn't hear your original episode, I should explain that you are a fire engineer. How would you explain it?

MK: We work with other engineers and architects, helping make sure their part of the design is safe for people during fires, or hopefully prevents the fires happening in the first place.

OF: Yeah.

MK: We’ve done evacuation trials of a double-decker, multi-level high-speed train.

OF: Oh.

MK: And this was a prototype train, so it's super interesting. Previously, we'd done evacuation trials of a high-speed train. But now we're doing a multi-level train.

OF: How interesting. I've seen those in Germany. I don't think I've seen them anywhere else in the world, actually. Have they started running in China yet?

MK: There are some. They're typically a bit taller than normal high-speed trains.

OF: Right.

MK: So there are only certain routes they can run them on. We were looking at human behaviour; looking at how we could get people off in efficient ways; some of the problems people might have; recording performance of how long it takes people to do things. That has been absolutely fascinating.

OF: Interesting. What about the next thing then, Michael. So what is next for you?

MK: So, I'm actually planning on leaving Shanghai. I'm going to be staying with my current company Arup, and I'm transferring to their Birmingham office in the UK.

OF: Right.

MK: I have two children who live with their mum in Shanghai, we're divorced. With me leaving, the kids are going to stay here for now. Yeah, it's been an interesting ride, my daughter is coming up to eleven, my son is coming up to nine. My daughter is fine speaking English, but my son doesn't like it. So I have to try and balance the two. Sometimes even get my daughter to translate, if I can't quite communicate what I want to say.

OF: Wow.

MK: So the plan in terms of the kids are, we're hopeful that they can come to the UK for high school.

OF: Oh right.

MK: So the idea is that they've had an education where they can learn, read and write Chinese; probably had a slightly higher amount of discipline instilled; and then when they come to the UK, hopefully they can have the best of both worlds. In terms of me missing them, the idea is we're going to have regular video chats. Of course, it's not going to be the same. Yeah

OF: It's lucky that they're at the age where they can at least understand what's going on. You know, it's not like they are toddlers, and suddenly you're gone, and you're only on a computer screen. They get it.

MK: Absolutely. I mean, when we first came here - this was like six and a half years ago - they were totally different. Now they're older, I feel a bit more comfortable that they have a slightly more settled life. They go to school here, they can understand when I tell them “You know, Daddy's going to be going to another country, but will still love you very much."

OF: Yeah.

MK: “I'm here for you. If you ever need me, you just call me, I'll come.” That kind of stuff. It's hard conversations. Coming here was a hard decision in many ways. Going through a divorce in a foreign country was also a challenge.

OF: Yeah.

MK: I had to fly to 新疆 [Xīnjiāng] to get the divorce done, on my own. No translator or anything. And they were like “What are you doing here?" And I said “Well, I'm here to get a divorce.” And they were like “What?”

OF: Wow.

MK: So the time in China is littered with those sort of stories. When you look back, you think “Wow, how did that happen?” And, yeah, it gives you confidence in what you're doing, I guess in some ways.

OF: Oh, Birmingham will be a breeze after this. No, I appreciate that Michael, because I got to know you in terms of what you do. But I think it's nice to cover this part of your life, just briefly in this chat as well.

MK: Yeah.

OF: Well, the person who you nominated for the next season sadly also left Shanghai. It's a shame, but at the at the same time I'm very glad that you are part of this project. It gives me an excuse now to keep in touch with you, as you move on with your career around the world. So good luck with the future.

MK: Thanks a lot.

[Catch-Up Interview 2]

OF: Hey Srini, nice to see you.

SY: Good to see you again, thank you.

OF: You're no longer in Shanghai, correct?

SY: Yes. I moved to Hyderabad. So for the last three months, I'm continuing my new role here in this place.

OF: Are you still working in the field of compliance?

SY: In fact I think you pushed me to my new role. That's what I should say. I still am in the compliance profession, but I have moved more to the FinTech side - the largest FinTech company in India, Paytm - truly as a ‘FinTech Philosopher.’

OF: Ah, that's so funny. I thought of your compliance role going into the realm of technology. I think that was where I came up with the title ‘Fintech'. But you're right, it wasn't very accurate. But now you've made it accurate.

SY: Indeed, because I work for the largest FinTech payment company. And we have got the same kind of a cookbook from what we have seen in China. The same thing is happening in India, but at a much faster pace. The FinTech payments need some amount of ecosystem, governance and compliance. So that is one part of the role. And personally - as you know me - I keep thinking about these things in a little more of a contemporary context. So I started doing my doctoral thesis - my second doctoral research - that I’ve started to pursue. Which is about the metaverse actually, and the kind of reality that the metaverse is going to bring.

OF: In our last catch-up - which was now 18 months ago - I think you mentioned that you had just started some research in bioethics at that point, correct?

SY: So that was a global masters in bioethics from Anáhuac University in Mexico. So that is already in progress actually. But because of this relocation - because of the time that it takes to spend on weekends - I was a bit delayed. So that is getting completed in about six months time.

OF: You already are a doctor. So you already have one PhD, how many masters and PhDs do you actually have at this point?

SY: I have one, but I have a fascination to have three. So this will be my second one.

OF: Oh my god.

SY: But I'm expecting - at least by the end of my life - I should have three PhDs.

OF: You know, when I talk to people doing their PhDs, they say what a nightmare it is, and how they only just survived with their faculties intact. And you want to have three? Oh my word.

SY: It's like, how do you create an album for your life? When you work professionally, you will get a lot of these ‘reflections of the world’. And if you can codify these reflections into some form of academic writing, it solidifies what you have done professionally.

OF: Yeah.

SY: So each of your PhDs is your like an album that you are creating, for the five or six years of the professional journey that you have done.

OF: I totally understand that. Well let's talk about your leaving China, because when somebody who was on the Mosaic does leave, the first thing I do is to remind you what you said that you would miss the most - and miss the least - when you left China. So now I can test if it's true or not. So you said that you would miss walking to work - which actually was quite a luxury for anyone in Shanghai too - and you said that you wouldn't miss having no access to your Telugu movies. Is that what you miss the most and miss the least? Or what is the reality?

SY: The reality is that I could regain both those things now. So even the walking is like five minutes away, because I'm mostly operating in a tech company. And they have given me a work from home option. So I think that has come back. And then with the added alternative of watching Telugu movies, at least every week, we wind up in getting into one or another movie. Please watch the South Indian movie called ‘RRR’: the best movie which you can watch. International standard. It is awesome. You should watch that movie.

OF: Well there you go. I always knew you were a superfan, but now you are becoming an ambassador for Bollywood as well. Well Srini, I want to thank you as usual for being part of this project. It's now been two updates following our original episode, and I hope that we have this excuse to keep in touch every year at least.

SY: Definitely, Oscar. And I should thank you personally, and to all the viewers. Because every time you do this kind of podcast, I always have a surge in my connections list - on LinkedIn WeChat and Facebook, some way or another they come in - and thanks to you, it is actually keeping me lively and engaged. And I look forward to staying in touch, thank you.

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