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How China plans to become a leader in robotics

With rapid economic development in the past 20 years, China urgently feels the need to move from a manufacturing-driven to an innovation-driven economy. As a result, the state is supporting many bold research initiatives to develop and attract highly skilled individuals who will be needed to lead this transition. Thanks to recent dramatic developments in hardware and software, economists anticipate that the Chinese robotics industry will meet its spring season this year.

China’s Five Year Plan establishes the core concept of development in all areas of society. In 2011, China started its 12th Five Year Plan, and for the first time ever, the service robot was identified as an important area for development. It is anticipated that many new Chinese robotics companies will emerge in the near future to meet the growth targets set out in the plan.

However, due to the economic crisis, the situation is changing subtly. I travelled around several main cities in China in early 2013 to learn from experts in the current automation industry, and it was apparent that because the new generation of Chinese workers ask for higher pay and lower workloads, it is very difficult for China’s massive manufacturing industry to recruit new workers. Not surprisingly, leading foreign industrial robot companies, such as Kuka, ABB and Fanuc are taking advantage of this problem to market their robots to the manufacturing sector.

Local companies are likewise developing Chinese industrial robots that may have relatively low performance, but which are nonetheless able to meet industrial requirements. One such example is the Million Robots Project from the Chinese electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn. While the industrial robot market is growing, however, service robots still remain the province of university labs and research institutes.

Funding high-risk research in China

In China, almost all high-risk, high-reward research is conducted by central government agencies: the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the Ministry of Education (ME), the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), and the Organization Department of CPC Central Committee (ODCCC).

NSFC aims to support young researchers by awarding modest grants from the Young Scientists Fund. This is the most popular funding mechanism for young researchers when they first begin conducting independent research as it is relatively easy to apply for and receive. The Ministry of Education manages several projects aimed to recruit top young and mid-career researchers both in and out of China to work as academic leaders and awards large grants to them.

The Ministry of Science and Technology manages several projects that are significant to researchers engaged in high risk, high reward research, including the National Basic Research Program of China and the National High Technology Research and Development Program of China. The ODCCC too funds high risk research initiatives through the Thousand Talent Project (TTP), a three-year term project with possible extension.

The goal of the TTP is to recruit thousands of foreign researchers with strong expertise in hardware and software to help develop innovation in China. There are already more than 100 foreign researchers working in China since 2008, the year TTP started.

Where the money goes

It can be difficult for people outside China to learn about the projects these granting programs support because—in part due to language barriers and visa restrictions—Chinese researchers tend to participate in domestic conferences rather than international ones.

While robotics researchers from around the world keenly watch videos of Boston Dynamic’s Bigdog walking freely on uneven and slippery mountain roads, or Honda’s Asimo dancing and hopping on one foot, the Chinese government is also busy establishing similar projects in a more low key fashion (see this PlasticPals YouTube playlist for a sample of what the whole must be).

Chinese humanoid robots doing a sword dance

Having visited Chinese laboratories and spoken face-to-face with researchers, I have seen many bold robotics initiatives that are currently underway. One particularly challenging area of development is the humanoid robot, and two of the best robotics laboratories for this are in China at the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) and Zhejiang University (ZHU), both of which have succeeded in producing the first humanoid robots that can perform Tai Chi and play ping pong (see here and here). These robots were not specifically designed for game play—they were in fact developed as part of China’s domestic service robots initiative – but Tai Chi and ping pong have helped researchers test their robots’ image processing and dexterity.

China is also pursing its own version of BigDog. In 2011, the 863 program established another 3-year project with funding up to $700m that aims to build a Biomimetic Quadruped Robot like Boston Dynamic’s BigDog. Almost all the important robotics labs in Chinese universities are competing for this funding. The Harbin Institute of Technology , Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Sheenyang Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Science, Shan Dong University, and other universities and institutes each released their version of BigDog one after another.

These homegrown initiatives may not yet have the performance capabilities of their better-known counterparts, but the Chinese are well on their way to catching up to the world leaders in robotics research.

The American BigDog.

This article first appeared on RoboHub before appearing on The Conversation. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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