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September 9, 2017

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How robots are shaping tomorrow’s world

IMAGINE: You wake up in the morning and your robot housekeeper makes your bed, cooks breakfast and cleans the floors.

Minutes later, a driverless car whisks the kids off to school, while a robot nurse cares for you elderly parents. You arrive at the office only to find robots have done half of your work.

Such thoughts were once the stuff of science fiction, but robots are increasingly taking part in the real world.

“Hello, Alpha, I’m back.”

“Hello. Welcome home,” says Alpha 2, while automatically switching on the lights, air-conditioner and television.

Voice-controlled humanoid butler Alpha 2 has been charming crowds at the recent 2017 World Robot Conference in Beijing.

Created by Chinese firm UBTech Robotics, Alpha 2 is able to do anything from housework and finding weather reports to dancing and reading children their bedtime stories.

“Robots are important in providing companionship and service at home,” says Li Zhen, general manager with UBTech’s brand department. “For the elderly who find it difficult to fetch a remote control or switch on the air-conditioner, these things can be done by robots.”

Once pure fantasy, intelligent machines are becoming increasingly common. In the future, family-friendly Alpha 2 will have even more functions.

In another booth at the exhibition hall, Chinese e-commerce platform JD.com is displaying its robot courier and drone. If used widely in the future, it will reduce costs and raise efficiency in the logistics sector.

The company uses a white robot courier, weighing around 200 kilograms, in at least four universities, according to Zhang Zhitong, senior manager with JD.com’s public relations department.

The robot courier is capable of avoiding obstacles and mainly used in urban areas.

Delivery robots

For remote rural areas, JD.com is developing drones that can deliver packages by passing through mountains, rivers and forests.

Zhang says that dozens of drones are being used in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, and the city of Suqian in Jiangsu Province.

Last month alone, more than 3,000 orders were delivered by drone in Suqian.

China’s logistics costs accounted for 14.9 percent of GDP in 2016.

“The ratio was significantly higher than developed economies,” Zhang says. “Lower logistics cost will have a great impact on Chinese society.”

Some worry the robots will cause workers to lose their jobs, but Zhang disagrees.

“The technological revolution will not lead to unemployment. It will push people to adjust to new jobs,” he says.

“Delivery workers can learn about managing and maintaining robots or flying drones,” Zhang adds.

While parcels can be delivered to your hand by robots, a robot known as Bestic can even feed you with a spoon.

Developed by Swedish-based Camanio Care, Bestic acts as a human arm to feed the user, mostly the elderly or those with difficulties using their arms or hands. It can increase meal-time independence and allow users to enjoy meals in their own space.

Bestic costs around 4,000 euros (US$4,800) overseas, but its price in China has not yet been decided, says Lu Tonghua, product manager with Zhongrui Funing Robotics Technology in Beijing, whose parent company is an agent and shareholder of Camanio Care.

Lu says the robot will be adjusted to Chinese eating habits in the future. “For example, Chinese elderly like to eat soup or noodles. A spoon alone is not enough.”

He says that more than 10 nursing homes have shown a willingness to purchase the robot.

If robots that can feed and wash people are not so surprising, what if you doctor was even a robot? Well, if surgical robot system Da Vinci is anything to go by, robot doctors might not be so far off.

In the robot conference exhibition hall, a video shows a surgeon sitting in front of a console and operating robotic arms to remove parts of a patient’s liver.

The Da Vinci surgical system, made by the American company Intuitive Surgical, is designed to facilitate complex surgery using a minimally invasive approach, and is controlled by a surgeon from a console.

China is equipped with more than 60 costly Da Vinci surgical systems. In 2016, they performed over 10,000 operations.

Applications abound

It is not just in the fields of home service, package delivery and healthcare that robots are transforming lives. They are also being used to battle fires, serve restaurant customers and even write news reports.

Robotics is a booming market.

The International Federation of Robotics forecasts that China’s robotics industry will be worth US$6.28 billion this year, after exceeding US$5 billion in 2016.

China is now in the critical stage of its “Made in China 2025” blueprint, a plan to move manufacturing up on the value chain, developing several key sectors, including robotics.

However, its robot density — measured by the number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers — was 49 in 2015, compared with the world average of 69. There is still plenty of room for growth.

Robots are not necessarily welcome in all fields, and people are anxious about their capacity to cause harm. Scientists from around the world have called on the United Nations to take action to stop the proliferation of “killer robots.”

Wang Feiyue, with the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, believes that people do not need to worry about artificial intelligence.

“Some see it a disaster, which will result in unemployment,” he says. “But it is not the case. After the steam engine was invented in the industrial revolution, people had similar anxieties. But they were not replaced. They still had jobs, working with the help of machines.”

He agrees that problems might crop up in the short term, but believes this can be handled.

“In the long run, robots will not replace human workers. Maybe 90 percent of the work could be done with the help of robots,” he says.

“Human beings are masters, not slaves, of artificial intelligence.”

 


 

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