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Robots on the horizon
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Robotic football players at the RoboCup (photo:

Scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster I, Robot, where the machines carry out all manner of human assistance, may become a reality in China sooner than expected, after the country's excellent performance at a recent high-profile international robot competition.

Chinese teams grabbed most of the trophies at the RoboCup China Open 2007, held between October 26 and 28 in Jinan, capital of east China's Shandong Province. The international event to promote robot research, education and competition in China was dominated by China's prestigious Peking University and Harbin Engineering University, which took gold medals for aquatic and aerial robot games.

Held for the second time in China, the RoboCup China Open, an event sponsored by RoboCup, an international research and education initiative to foster artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent robotics research, drew an impressive 413 teams, of which 22 were from overseas.

Leading the competition
Robots made in China had made an impression on the world even before the RoboCup China Open. In August 2007 China's Xi'an Jiaotong University emerged as winners of the Sixth ABU Asia-Pacific Robot Contest, or ABU Robocon (ABU-Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union). That contest had 19 teams from 18 countries and regions in the Asia-Pacific and took place in Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Aquatic robot game at the RoboCup (photo:

It was the first time that a team from China had won the annual competition, which began in 2002, defeating the Indonesian team in the final showdown and ousting three-time winners, and title holders, Viet Nam. The University of Science and Technology of China, Southwest University of Science and Technology and University of Science and Technology Beijing took second place at the ABU Robocon 2002, 2004 and 2005 event, respectively, entrenching China's virtual stranglehold on this competition.

On the domestic scene, annual competitions like the CCTV Cup-National College Students Robot Competition, which was started in 2002, have also provided an incentive for young scientists. Not surprisingly, this year's competition was won by the Xi'an Jiaotong University team.

The university should not only teach students, but also encourage them to do whatever they are good at, said Vice President of Xi'an Jiaotong University Qiu Jin, when he was asked to comment on the school's victory at the ABU Robocon contest.

Hu Yaxin, a team member of the victorious 30-person robot-building team, said winning was sweet and a long time coming. "The success didn't come easy and we have waited for so long to see this victory."

In a way, his words had a deeper meaning, as humans have always dreamed of creating a machine with human-like qualities that could relieve the many tedious functions in daily and industrial life.

Late start
The dream came true in the spring of 1961 when the world's first industrial robot was designed by a General Motors plant in the United States. Over the next 40 years the robot family expanded to more than 1 million robots worldwide, most of which are industrial robots.

The robot development in China, however, didn't have an easy start. According to Cai Hegao from the Robotic Research Institute, Harbin Institute of Technology, back in 1972 a Chinese scientist, Jiang Xinsong, appealed to the Chinese Academy of Sciences for an earlier start to robotic research.

However, the research was suspended not long after it was initiated because of strong opposition from both the government and manufacturers. Critics said that robots didn't fit into China's reality as the country possessed such a large population.

Aerial robot game at the RoboCup (photo:

Robot research resumed in 1982 when Cai returned home from a three-year academic study in the United States and suggested the country's aerospace department continue the robot research. This time Cai received support and not long afterwards he and his team created China's first arc-welding robot.

Given the country's delayed entrance into the robot research and other obstacles in terms of technology and finance, China has made some remarkable achievements in this field. These include the aquatic robot from the Shenyang Institute of Automation, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the aerial robot from the Robot Research Institute, Harbin Institute of Technology.

China's AI robot research, however, lags far behind advanced countries like the United States, Japan and Germany, said Cai, adding that the world's robot research and development are moving in two major directions: wider in application and smarter in intelligence.

Making up lost ground
In general, China's robot technology has somehow gained a foothold. However, the bottleneck in robot development here is the market, meaning the need for robot applications, said Lai Weide, a Chinese robot specialist.

The need for robots is actually generated by a fast-developing economy, allowing robot producers to make stable and inexpensive products to meet the market's demand, explained Lai. "So industrialization is the only way to cut cost and increase the quality of robot production."

With regard to industrialization, Lai said the government has a key role to play. He said China should take a leaf out of Japan's book where companies are encouraged by the government to employ robots. The Chinese Government should draw up feasible and favorable policies in terms of taxation, investment and financial credit to promote R&D and the application of robots.

Dancing robot game at the RoboCup (photo:

Some foreign robot producers are already eyeing the Chinese market. In April 2006, ABB (Asea Brown Boveri) opened its first Chinese robot business headquartered in Shanghai. And early in 2007, the global leading power and automation technology group announced it would bring its latest robot into production in China. Up to now, ABB is the only international company that manufactures industrial robots locally.

In other fields, the market for robots is also booming. Experts at the 2007 China International Industry Fair in Shanghai, held on November 6-10, said that service robots would enter Chinese households in three to five years.

Cao Qixin, a robot researcher from Shanghai Jiaotong University, said unlike industrial robots, China began to develop service robots at the same time as developed nations. This has resulted in a narrowing gap between China and other countries in the field of service robot technologies.

In October 2007, Chinese scientists invented the first cooking robot, named AIC-AI Cooking Robot, which can cook food with its master-cooking capabilities. The robot can fry, bake, boil and steam, and perform other special Chinese cooking actions with a mere click of a few buttons.

Huang Jianmin, an official from the Shanghai Electric Group Co. Ltd., said his group would introduce service robots to do its reception and service work at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

China's big challenge no doubt will be balancing robots and their uses with a huge labor force, but which ever way you look at it, robots are here to stay and may even contribute to a more harmonious society.

(Beijing Review, December 7, 2007)

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