Rise of the machines: China’s robotics market can only grow

Winnie Tang says with rising demand for both service and industrial robots and strong government support buoying the industry, Hong Kong will do well to nurture its edge in technology

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 December, 2015, 4:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 1:22pm

China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to develop its robotic technology industry as it tries to catch up with the global leaders. At Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza this year, for example, the sales of one model of a vacuum-cleaning robot jumped to 315 million yuan (HK$380 million), double last year’s sales and 150 times that of 2011.

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Service robots assist human beings, typically by performing tasks that are dull, dirty or repetitive, such as cleaning floors. The robot usually looks nothing like a human – the vacuum-cleaning robot mentioned above, for example, is a round machine. Currently, there are three main types of domestic robots: small home appliances that perform basic household chores, machines that assist in childcare, and humanoid robots designed to provide company for the elderly and those with disabilities.

In China, development has mainly focused on small home appliances. An industry insider says there are three stages in the evolution of the domestic robot: tool, governor and companion. Presently, China is still at the “tool” stage, where robots are mainly used to do household chores. To progress, the country must enter the “governor” and “companion” stages, where the main objective is social interaction. There’s a major push in this direction as population ageing becomes a challenge in China and the developed world.

Japan, for one, is leading in the field of humanoid robotics. Recently, it launched the world’s first robot that can express emotions. The robot does not do any household chores but is designed to “make you happy”. It can read emotions, recognising tones of voice and facial expressions, as well as give you “ardent attention”, make small talk and even tell jokes. The robot was sold out within a minute.

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In China, the demand for industrial robots is even greater. According to the 2015 survey of industrial robots by the International Federation of Robotics, the global operating stock of industrial robots in the country in 2014 was estimated to be close to 190,000, or 13 per cent of the global total. The figure is expected to surge to 610,000 by 2018, amounting to over a quarter of global demand. These robots are now mainly used in the automobile industry and by manufacturers of electronics products, such as smartphones and tablets, for quality improvements.

The relatively low penetration of robotics in the Chinese manufacturing sector today means improvements are likely to be dramatic when they come. According to the survey, China’s robot density is currently a mere 36 units per 10,000 employees, compared with 478 units in South Korea, 315 in Japan and 292 in Germany.

Hong Kong should not be left out, since it actually has a competitive edge in the field.

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Take Insight Robotics. Founded by home-grown innovators, the fire detection robot, which is equipped with a thermal imaging camera and a high-speed computer vision processor, is able to locate a single tree catching fire within a radius of 5km. DJI, a world-leading drone maker, is another legend. The founder of the multibillion-dollar company was educated at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the idea for the start-up was conceived while he was there. Meanwhile, Chinese University of Hong Kong has also been actively promoting medical technology development through the introduction of robotic technology.

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What’s more, according to the International Federation of Robotics, among all the companies in the service robot market, 15 per cent are start-ups less than five years old. Continued growth and innovation in the industry is to be expected.

China’s demand for both service and industrial robots is tremendous, and Hong Kong must hone its edge in research and development in the field. The newly established Innovation and Technology Bureau can help in that respect. I therefore have high hopes that our young people will grasp this golden opportunity to develop Hong Kong into a technological centre in advanced robotics.

Dr Winnie Tang is a founding member of Hong Kong Professionals and Senior Executives Association