Robot AlphaDog combines China’s two loves: pets and technology

  • The invention uses 5G technology, artificial intelligence and lightning fast internet speeds to help it see and hear its environment
  • Beijing has made huge investments in robotics, using them to deliver packages and do throat swabs during Covid-19
Agence France-Presse |

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It's fast, obeys commands and doesn't leave unpleasant surprises on the floor - meet the AlphaDog! Photo: AFP

It’s whip-fast, obeys commands and doesn’t leave unpleasant surprises on the floor – meet the AlphaDog, a robotic response to two of China’s growing passions: pets and technology.

The hi-tech hound uses sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to “hear” and “see” its environment – and can even be taken for walks.

“It’s really very similar to a real dog,” says Ma Jie, chief technology officer at Weilan, the company behind the product.

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The Nanjing-based creators say their robot dog – which moves at a speed of almost 15km/h and spins on the spot like an excited puppy – is the fastest on the market.

With four metal legs, it is more stable than a real dog, Ma explains, as one of his team swiftly kicks it to prove the point.

“It can predict the friction and height of the ground [to] adjust its height, adjust the stride frequency, and adapt to the environment,” he says, as the robot slowly navigates going up a set of stairs.

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Its creators are using 5G technology and superfast internet speeds with immediate reaction times to make the robot operate without human input.

Ma studied reinforcement learning – the study of how to reinforce actions through reward or punishment – at the University of Oxford in Britain, and says he has used that knowledge to inform how the AI dog mimics canine habits.

Dog ownership was banned under the leadership of communist China’s founder Mao Zedong – but has since boomed dramatically.

AlphaDog quadruped robots pass through a gate in a workshop at the Weilan Intelligent Technology Corporation in Nanjing. Photo: AFP

And in the first month of sales, more than 1,800 AlphaDogs have trotted off the shelves, despite the hefty price tag of 16,000 yuan (HK$19,000).

“Orders are mostly from computer developers, tech geeks, and also kids, who really seem to like it,” said Ma.

As China seeks to upskill its workforce, Beijing has been making huge investments in robotics and AI.

Robots are already used to deliver parcels, serve in restaurants, offer information at stations, and even take throat swabs for Covid-19 tests.

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The Weilan workshop is staffed by young tech enthusiasts, and filled with pencil design sketches and a central obstacle route of stairs and slopes for the machines to clunk over in testing.

Developers there hope future uses of their four-legged friend could benefit the visually impaired.

“To help the disabled is an important developing direction for us,” says Ma.

“When the robot dog has the function of vision, hearing and dialogue, too, it can easily interact with disabled people, and lead them to the supermarket or the bus.”

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Future software updates will include the dog “barking” – and beyond that, even add human voices to allow conversations between pet and owner.

There is also a larger “enterprise” dog model, designed for industrial inspections of machinery or pipes.

The next generation of the AlphaDog in pet form could also introduce “personalities” to make them even more canine-like, as well as extend its somewhat brief battery life. Rather crucial for that realism!

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