Biz / Tech

China seeks 'robot revolution' to leap into an automated future

Robots that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and wow audiences with their musical skills are among the machines on display at this year's World Robot Conference in Beijing.

A staff member prepares to fly a bionic flying fox for a performance at Festo's booth at the World Robot Conference (WRC) in Beijing, China August 15, 2018.

Robots that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and wow audiences with their musical skills are among the machines China hopes could revolutionize its economy, with visitors to a Beijing exhibition offered a glimpse of an automated future.

The popular stars of this year’s World Robot Conference, which ended on Sunday, were undoubtedly the small, amateur-made “battle bots” which smashed, hammered and sawed their way through their opponents to a cacophony of cheers and shouts from a rapt audience.

“With this robot, I can fully express myself. I love the sparks,” said Huang Hongsong, one of around a dozen Chinese youths whose creations went head-to-head.

But while the battle bots are designed largely to entertain onlookers, China is deadly serious about riding the robotic wave with an eye on its economy.

Cheap manufacturing propelled China to become the world’s second largest economy in just a few decades.

But the country’s population is aging, leaving it facing a double whammy of a worker shortage and increased labor costs as it gets wealthier.

Automated machines offer a possible way out.

At the robot show, a vast array of machines demonstrated how technology may eventually replace human workers.

In one corner, a mechanical arm — designed to teach children — painted an elegant Chinese character while a robotic fish explored its tank and a bat flapped its mechanical wings overhead.

By 2020, China is aiming for half of the industrial robots sold in the country to be made by Chinese companies, up from 27 percent currently — with a target of 70 percent by 2025.

“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 conference.

But it is a delicate balancing act for Chinese policy-makers due to the potential for human job losses — a 2016 World Bank report said automation could threaten up to 77 percent of jobs in China’s current labor market.

Nonetheless a great robotic leap forward has already been made.

China is now the world’s number one market for industrial robots with some 141,000 units sold last year, accounting for a third of global demand, according to the International Federation of Robotics, which says demand could rise an additional 20 percent per year until 2020.

“China has huge opportunities to increase the level of its industrial automation (and) industrial robotization,” said Karel Eloot, an expert at consultancy firm McKinsey.

He notes that China still has huge room for growth given that competitors like Japan and Germany have four times the level of robotization in their factories compared to the Asian giant.

Qu Daokui, president of domestic firm Siasun, which was showing off a snake-like robot that can operate in narrow passages, said China needs to increase the quality and sophistication of its robots, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence.

“We used to focus on the accuracy, reliability and speed of robots — now it’s their flexibility, intelligence and adaptability that makes the difference,” he said, adding robots needed to interact and adapt to their environments and “make independent decisions.”

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