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The human face of robotics

By KARL WILSON | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-01-13 09:50
James Zhou says he believes AI will improve the lives of humans most of the time, and make the world a better place. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

In many ways, James Zhou represents all that is today's modern China — drive and ambition to be the best.

Zhou, the founder and CEO of UBTECH Robotics, based in Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong province, is seen as an industry leader of China's robot technology. He said he is just happy to be contributing to China's push to become one of the world's leading centers for robot technology and artificial intelligence.

UBTECH started operations five years ago. It became the first company to commercialize humanoid robots in China.

It has established strategic partnerships with global corporate giants such as Apple, Amazon, The Walt Disney Company, and even Manchester City Football Club.

Despite being a startup, Zhou said UBTECH "has had a global vision right from the very start".

UBTECH has positioned itself as a global high-tech enterprise that integrates the research and development of AI and humanoid robots, as well as the development and application of software and product sales.

Zhou attributes the company's success to a number of factors, among them core technology, intellectual property, marketing and R&D.

"We took nearly five years to develop our own robotic servomotor which not only features high torque, high precision and small size, but more importantly, cuts down the market price quite significantly," he said.

Although Zhou speaks enthusiastically about the future of robotic technology, not everyone shares his passion, especially when it comes to humanoids and AI. Professor Stephen Hawking, one of Britain's preeminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to "our very existence".

Zhou acknowledged that the rapid development of robotics has aroused some concerns. But he added that people need to "pay attention to and control the direction and ethics of robotics development".

Robots have already taken over from humans in assembly-line work, especially in the automobile-manufacturing sector. But Zhou said AI will also create a "great deal" of new jobs.

"Humankind should learn to teach robots in a better way, and utilize the advantages of robots to improve the quality of work.

"The future will be an era of human-robot collaboration, where robots can actually increase the intelligence of humans, with humans always taking the lead. Therefore, what we should be doing at the advent of the artificial intelligence era is to be thinking about how to embrace it and get prepared to tackle the issues that will accompany new technology, instead of worrying about or even rejecting technological innovation," he said.

Technology itself is neutral, and whether the result will be good or bad will be determined by how humankind applies it.

Zhou said UBTECH believes AI will improve our lives most of the time — and in the majority of areas, make the world a better place. As a practitioner in this field, UBTECH hopes to lead AI on the right path of development.

UBTECH took an active part recently in the voting of signatory countries for the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

And in July, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. "This indicates that the development of artificial intelligence has officially become a part of China's national strategy, which is undoubtedly an important step forward for artificial intelligence legislation," Zhou said.

Zhou's passion for robotics has never waned. It started when he was a child in Shanghai. Even when he relaxes, he is thinking about robots. His favorite film is Transformers, the 2007 blockbuster science-fiction thriller about a war between two races of robots.

"When I was young I had this fantasy that we would be surrounded by all kinds of robots someday, including humanoid robots, wheeled robots, tracked robots, and so on. Among these, humanoid robots are my favorite," he said.

Recalling a trip he made to Japan in 2008, Zhou said: "I happened to visit a robot exposition where I saw a large number of humanoid robots.

"This experience had a huge impact on me," he said. "I realized that if humanoid robots were brought into the household, a lot of people would experience great changes in their lives. Since then, I have been determined to develop and manufacture our own humanoid robots."

Zhou said two widespread issues in the Japanese robotics industry led him to a career in robotics.

"First, prices are too high. An ordinary robot usually costs several hundred thousand yuan. This causes great difficulties in bringing robots to the average household.

"Second, the robots' behaviors cannot be customized through programming. When I returned from Japan, I decided to set up my own humanoid robot R&D team, and started developing the core technology of humanoid robots — the servo actuator," he said.

Zhou believes it will take at least 30 years to fully commercialize life-like robots. "In the short term, say five to 10 years, it is possible that some human-looking robots will begin to enter our homes, adapt to a human living environment, and become an active interaction center," he said.

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