Time to make amends with the robots

Andy Boreham Zhou Shengjie Zhong Youyang
I did enjoy my day mixing and mingling with some of the robots on show at the import expo.I'm still not sure if they're ready just yet to steal my job, but they're well on the way.
Andy Boreham Zhou Shengjie Zhong Youyang
Shot by Andy Boreham and Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Zhong Youyang

Yesterday was my time to shine here at the import expo when I came across an amazing-looking grand piano during my adventure. I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give the tired visitors and exhibitors a rare treat — a few minutes under the embrace of my amazing piano skills.

I sat down, warmed my hands with a few stretches and started to belt out my rendition of a contemporary classic: “Hello” by Adele.

A hundred ears and eyes were transfixed on my masterpiece and by me. As I approached the final verse, I slowed my pace, ever so slightly, then sped up again. The climax came with a round of applause — what seemed like the entire hall was enthralled and wanting more.

If you believed that, I’m a better storyteller than my friends give me credit for.

Perhaps owing to my rocky run-in with robots earlier on at the import expo, yesterday was my day to make amends with our digital friends. I set out to purposefully push my own limits, and the first thing I came across was quite a treat.

Steinway & Sons, who are based in the United States but produce their instruments in Germany, offer a special grand piano that is something to behold: It can play one of 3,000 masterpieces at the touch of a button.

David Yu from the company let me sit down and scroll through the library of songs, all played by master musicians and reproduced with the accuracy and nuance of a live concert.

“Most of our customers are individuals wanting to enjoy piano music at home, but can’t necessarily play themselves,” Yu told me. He couldn’t tell me the price — that’s something they don’t discuss. Perhaps it’s a case of “if you need to ask the price then this isn’t for you.”

But that’s not necessarily the reason why Yu doesn’t have one at home, although I didn’t want to assume. “I live in Shanghai,” he laughed. “Most apartments here are not conducive to the placement of a grand piano!”

Time to make amends with the robots
Zhou Shengjie / SHINE

Andy Boreham plays against Omron’s ping-pong robot. 

The next stop was the exhibit of Japan’s Omron Corporation which, despite having a ping-pong playing robot as their main attraction at the import expo, actually produces robots for use in factories.

“This ping-pong machine senses its opponent’s moves and skill level, mimicking it to some degree,” Liu Xiaojun, an engineer from the company, told me.

He invited me to have a play which, despite the fact that I haved lived in China for a few years now, is something I’ve never tried. Just my luck, my first time playing ping-pong would be against a robot from Japan!

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “The robot’s aim is to play with you, not to beat you.”

That was some relief, and then I realized it was definitely the case when I won against the machine three times. I guess it saw how bad I was and wanted to build my confidence.

I asked Liu if Omron had thought about actually putting the ping-pong machine on the market, since the crowds of people visiting the company’s stall seemed fixated on it, and not so much on the company’s actual products.

“That’s not on the cards now,” he said. “But we do improve the machine for exhibitions like this every year in order to show off our latest technology.”

In any event, I did enjoy my day mixing and mingling with some of the robots on show at the import expo. I’m still not sure if they’re ready just yet to steal my job, but they’re well on the way.

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