Shanghai is well and truly going to the robots, but not any time soon

There before me stood a cute, pink robot waiting to help me with any questions I had about the station, my travel plans, and even the weather.
SSI ļʱ

A police robot is seen patrolling the streets of Beijing.

Robots seem to be taking over Shanghai with fervor of late, showing up everywhere from Metro stations to coffee shops to Disneyland. My history with them hasn’t been great, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

One of my first run-ins with their kind was at the first China International Import Expo, where I outsmarted a service robot, highlighted the human reliance issues of a robot barista, and won a game of table tennis against a pro robot from Japan.

Yeah, I felt good.

First up was the cute robot assistant in the expo’s media center who was, apparently, to serve the reporters who had gathered to cover the event. Unfortunately, her programmers seemed to have overlooked the fact that dozens of international reporters had also come, and that most of them couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin.

“Do you speak English?” I asked her in Mandarin. I offered to help her learn — for a fee — after she admitted she needed to study more.

Next in my crosshairs was the famed barista robot — basically it was two robotic arms that could whip up a cup of hot, fresh coffee. But hordes of human workers had to rush out and cover the machine up when I realized the cup of coffee it gave me was nearly empty. The machine had run out of milk, and humans were needed to come and top it up.

I did really enjoy my bout with a ping-pong playing robot from Japan, who I managed to beat even though it was my first-ever game of the fabled sport. Maybe it was programmed to give hope to its opponents — that it certainly succeeded at.

Since then I’ve come across other robotic friends every now and again who I’ve tried to be a little more open-minded with. One was just recently, actually, as I made an official visit to Zhongke Road Metro station on Line 13.

There before me stood a cute, pink robot waiting to help me with any questions I had about the station, my travel plans, and even the weather.

“Do you speak English?” I asked her, in Mandarin. She can’t. I decided to let her off and asked when she was born. “The moment I met you is when I was born,” she quickly snapped back in a cutesy, girly voice.

Apparently she was even flirtier before, one of the staff members told me. “We had to tone her down a bit,” he laughed.

That’s when I just had to know: Why is it that all of these robots are of the female variety? “They’re more friendly, I guess.”

Then it was business time. “Where is the closest toilet?” I asked. She laid out the route I needed to take, and there I was thinking she’d lead the way. “She can normally move, but she’s charging right now,” the staff member said as he pointed to a huge black cable running from the wall and into the robot’s back. How did I miss that?

I guess I had a picture in my mind of the rigid robots patrolling the streets of Beijing that stalked my nightmares a few weeks ago. In case you haven’t heard of them, they walk — actually, they roll — up and down certain streets in the capital waiting to assist anyone who needs help.

Much like the Metro robot, they can answer your questions and help you out. They can also spot emergencies, for example they are equipped with thermal sensing equipment that can recognize and report fires.

I can’t help but wonder if the police robots are feminine, too.

It all got me thinking: The robots really do have a long way to go. But, to be fair, I think it’s only the beginning.

So, while it’s easy and a little fun to outsmart the real-world robots that movies promised us would be stronger and smarter than they are, it’s fun to see the beginning of the journey. I’m sure they’ll better us, one day.

SSI ļʱ
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