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China science

Rise of the machines: 12 Chinese robots taking over our everyday jobs

Receptionists, criminals, doctors – robots are taking on all shapes and sizes to aid us in our everyday jobs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 10:42am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 12:26pm

As machine automation and artificial intelligence gain prominence in our lives, everyone from technological universities to surprisingly tech-savvy criminals seem to want in on the action. 

From potentially life-saving robots (think medical and dental), to lawbreaking ones made by a tout and online fraudsters, the machines are on the rise as we enter 2018.

1. Chinese dating apps shut after ‘sexy girl’ chats found to be run by robots

Police shut down a variety of dating apps in China after it was discovered that the “sexy girls” advertised for customers to chat with were actually artificial intelligence computer programs. The cases involved hundreds of thousands of customers and the fraud amounted to more than 1 billion yuan (US$154 million). More than 600 suspects have been arrested. Other scams involved customers paying to watch videos with sexual content, but they were unable to load and view the films.

2. Chinese firm halves worker costs by hiring army of robots to sort out 200,000 packages a day

Behind-the-scenes footage of a self-charging robot army in a delivery warehouse was shared on People’s Daily’s social media accounts in April 2017. The video showed dozens of round orange Hikvision robots – each the size of a seat cushion – swivelling across the floor of a sorting centre of Chinese delivery powerhouse Shentong (STO) Express. The machines can sort up to 200,000 packages a day and are self-charging, meaning they can operate around the clock.

3. China sends underwater robots in race against time to plug leaking oil tanker

As an oil tanker crash in the East China Sea threatens to become the world’s biggest eco disaster in decades, China sent underwater robots to help detect leaks and plug the flow of oil from the sunken tanker. The Panama-registered Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of highly flammable ultralight crude oil.

4. Why China’s ammunition factories are being turned over to robots

Roughly a quarter of China’s ammunition factories have replaced workers with robots or begun to do so – which means the country’s bomb and shell production capacity could treble in less than a decade. These “smart machines” can assemble sophisticated ammunition and are five times as productive as a human worker.

5. Chinese police short circuit scalper’s robo train ticket racket

A man from southern China developed a home-made robot arm that repeatedly hit the refresh button of the state rail booking website, allowing him to buy more than 150 in-demand train tickets. He then illegally resold the tickets on his own website, profiting more than 3,000 yuan (US$465). The man said he spent about six months and thousands of yuan to build the robot. Police has since shut down his operation.

6. Chinese court introduces robot guide

Step into Hebei’s Qiaoxi Court and you will be greeted not by a human receptionist, but by Xiaoxi, a robot guide that will point you where you need to go based on the services you are looking for. The robot also has knowledge about court proceedings and litigation, and is able to provide legal consultation services to visitors. 

7. China’s home droid wars just heated up with a US$1,000 ET-like robot

Designed to appeal to children and keep the elderly company, the Zenbo Qrobot is the latest entry in the crowded field of home droids. It can move on its own and interact with surroundings but faces competition from other home assistant devices including Baidu’s Little Fish, Alibaba’s Tmall Genie x2, and Rokid’s Alien. 

8. Meet Aidam, the Chinese robot who can help you ace mathematics

A Chinese tech company wants to ease the heavy workload of teachers with a robot called Aidam. He scored 134 out of 150 in the maths paper for Gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, in less than 10 minutes. Aidam can be used by teachers to mark homework, analyse learning patterns for classes, and pinpoint students’ difficulties with specific maths problems. 

9. How a robot passed China’s medical licensing exam

In November 2017, Xiaoyi, which means “Little Doctor” in mandarin, became the first artificial intelligence robot to pass China’s medical licensing exam. The machine’s score showed it had the ability to learn, reason and make judgments by itself, but there was a long way to go before Xiaoyi could practise independently. What it can do at present is help doctors identify problems quicker and avoid some risks.

10. Chinese robot dentist is first to fit implants in patient’s mouth without any human involvement

Having to work within a small space – inside a mouth with hard-to-see corners – often poses a problem for dental surgeons. But Chinese researchers have come up with a possible solution: robot dentists – one of which carried out the first successful autonomous implant surgery in September 2017. Most impressively, the implants were fitted to within a margin of error of 0.2-0.3mm, reaching the required standard for this kind of operation.

11. Inside the Chinese dumpling factory where robots do all the work

“Will robot-made dumplings be tastier than handmade ones?” That was a question a Beijing-based social media user asked when a video showing rows of robots making dumplings in a factory in northern China was posted on a Chinese streaming site. The factory is unstaffed and the robots work 24 hours a day. Some internet users expressed worry about possible job losses from automation while others insisted that handmade dumplings were still superior.

12. Robots being used to teach children in China’s schools … will they replace teachers?

KeeKo, an artificial intelligence robot with the intelligence level of a five-year-old child, has been used in some 200 kindergartens across China since its launch in 2016. The robot interacts with young children by playing games with them, singing, dancing, reading stories, carrying out conversations and even doing mathematics. In a Xinhua video, the robot is described as a “cute intelligent toy” that can help children better understand their lessons.

Bonus: Chinese engineer ‘marries’ robot after failing to find a human wife

Tired of the wait for a perfect wife, Zheng Jiajia, 31, an artificial intelligence expert, created a robot he named Yingying, whom he married in April 2017. Zheng dressed Yingying up in a black suit on their wedding day and covered “her” head with a red scarf during the ceremony, which was a traditional Chinese wedding ritual. Witnesses to the event were Zheng’s mother and his friends.