Will artistic robots be far away from us?

Ni Tao
Many human-shaped robots still can do little with their hands beyond such simple tasks as clutching an item.
Ni Tao

A gigantic robot extends six arms from its “torso,” completing a series of tasks involving molding, welding, printing and packaging, before finally spewing out a finished product at the other end of the assembly line.

In this imaginary future factory, multi-armed robots rule supreme, replacing their single-armed or double-armed predecessors that form part and parcel of the automated production lines today. Overhauled, compact lines lead to higher manufacturing efficiency.

“This is comparable to a crab or an octopus with eight legs or tentacles, each programmed to perform multiple tasks at the same time,” said Gan Zhongxue.

President of Ningbo Institute of Intelligent Manufacturing Industry in Zhejiang Province, Gan is a leading authority on robotics. He believes that we are focused inordinately on robots’ levels of artificial intelligence (AI) rather than agility.

“I have long advocated building robots with an intelligent ‘mind’ and nimble ‘hands,’” Gan told the Shanghai Daily in an interview during the China-UK Intelligent Robotics Forum held recently at Fudan University.

Blessed as they are with the latest AI technology, many human-shaped robots still can do little with their hands beyond such simple tasks as clutching an item.

In Gan’s opinion, robots would have to be sufficiently adroit and agile if they were to be trusted with more meaningful work. The way he rationalized his argument is by pointing to our ancestors, who became distinguishable from other species once they stood upright on hind legs and learned to use and make tools.

The surge in human intelligence is often ascribed to interaction with the environment. By the same token, interaction will be essential for the development of AI and robotics, Gan explained.

An example is the inspiration engineers draw from their studies in bionics. For instance, under-water robots are equipped with sonar systems like those found in dolphins, enabling them to navigate, hunt and detect danger.

A latecomer to the industry, China is playing catch-up in the two types of robots commonly seen at home: industry robots and service robots.

The first segment is dominated by the “Big Four” established automation and robotics companies — ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa and Kuka — although their market shares are decreasing due to growing Chinese competition.

In the past, Chinese businesses had to rely on imports to make up for the lack of quality homemade components necessary for building industry robots, but a new generation of patented Chinese products have come to narrow the gap.

“In some areas, the quality of Chinese-made parts is already on par with that of imported ones,” said Gan, adding that this is a tremendous achievement.

The steep learning curve of domestic robotics companies is exemplified by the fact that their products are used across a growing number of industries.

From ‘waiters’ to ‘helpers’

Compared with industry robots, China is more active in rolling out service robots. They range from “waiters” taking orders at a restaurant to “domestic helpers” keeping people company.

“China is in the midst of a mania over service robots, while development is more controlled and incremental overseas,” Gan noted.

According to him, domestic service robots are interactive, but only up to a point. They can be programmed to sing, converse, recognize faces and perform other tasks without having much physical contact with users, thereby avoiding the risk of causing physical harm.

While crediting national policies as an impetus to the robotics industry, especially subsidies for manufacturers, Gan cautioned that government support is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it does stimulate the industry and spur development; on the other, it has led to a glut in the category of low-cost, low-end robotics.

He thus advised the government to be more discreet when dispensing subsidies and seeking expert opinion to select qualified candidates.

Unlike those alarmed at the scenario of robots calling the shots, Gan appeared unfazed by the apocalyptical prediction by Silicon Valley entrepreneur, author and robotics guru Martin Ford.

Ford once warned that not just blue-collar workers but white-collar professionals like attorneys and accountants will be in danger of losing their jobs as a result of the exponential growth in AI and robotics.

“I personally think that any dangerous and non-creative jobs will be taken over by robots. What cannot be superseded by any progress in AI is man’s creativity and artistic talent,” Gan argued.

He, however, declined to answer in the affirmative if robots one day will be empowered to compose music, invent objects and write novels.

“I honestly cannot tell. This may happen when machines are built not just to think like men, but also to have a biological life of their own,” he said.

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