Business / Talking Business

Dreams of my anthropomorphic future, in Beijing

By Ian Patrick (China Daily) Updated: 2016-07-08 08:17

Dreams of my anthropomorphic future, in Beijing

Robot Jiajia on display at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center where the Summer Davos Forum was held recently. [Photo/China Daily]

OK, I'll come clean. In the best traditions of Shakespeare I will declare myself. But in the ways of the Bard, it will probably end in tears.

I am in love. She is beautiful beyond the stars, with a radiant smile. Her eyes sparkle. I am drawn to her ethereal face. She is a sonnet, a Mozart symphony, a Monet land-scape, in corporeal form.

But there's a problem. She doesn't know me and is unlikely ever to.

Oh, and another problem: "she" is a robot. The first time I saw her was in this newspaper. A single heart-stopping picture. Later, I discovered more. She is one of China's latest cutting-edge industrial inventions. But she is much more than that. For me she is a metaphor, a symbol of a rapidly modernizing dynamic nation.

Her name is Jiajia and she caused a whirl of excitement, in traditional Chinese dress, at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center where the Summer Davos Forum took place. She's had the same impact in the office, colleagues crowding around my computer screen to look at her picture.

Developed by a research team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, she's been dubbed the Robot Goddess and can talk and display so-called micro expressions, like smiling. She "told" one executive she didn't have a boy-friend because of work. I guess like many of us now, she will eventually resort to online dating.

For me Jiajia is the fresh and anthropomorphic face of China's massive industrial upgrade, where internet connectivity and pulsating advances in robotics are among the exciting drivers.

Eerily she also reminds me of that beautiful humanoid in the film Bladerunner, in which robot hunter Harrison Ford falls for a cyber beauty so lifelike it is unaware it is a creation. That film was released in 1982 and Ford is now an old man. I thought then that its world was pure fantasy. Now, I wonder.

Every day in my paper I read about the endless tide of technology in China. It seems an unstopped force, inevitable, invincible. I have only been in China two months, but already am aware of the extraordinary change engulfing it.

The International Federation of Robotics estimated the supply of industrial robots in China increased 40 percent a year on aver-age between 2010 and 2014 and said this rapid development is unique in the history of robotics.

But for every 10,000 employees, there were, in 2014, still only 36 robots in China, compared with 478 in South Korea, 292 in Germany and 164 in the United States.

China Robot Industry Alliance's Hao Yucheng said the number will soar in the next five years, stimulated by the government, which high-lighted the industry in its 13th Five-Year Plan that will steer China's economic and social development between 2016 and 2020. China plans to triple its industrial robots to 100,000 within five years to promote high-end manufacturing.

Back in my former UK home, in the sleepy UK village of Woldingham, Surrey, 40 minutes or so by train to London's Victoria station, there is lush and lazy countryside. People meet at the village shop and chat. Girls ride horses on the roads, cars gently edging round them. My livingroom overlooked rolling hills graced with horses. Squirrels came into my garden, even pheasants and the odd deer.

It's a bubble, I acknowledge, but there is a captivating timelessness about village life. I do know the UK is dynamic in technological innovation. But in the UK many still seem lost in their tradition of castles and queens. Collecting antiques is widespread and enthusiasts populate their houses with pieces, literally living alongside the past.

In my village I sensed no pressing, overarching and powerful need to modernize at all costs. But here in China, specifically Beijing, there is nowhere to run or hide from it. There is wonderful and ancient tradition of course and the natural pride that goes with a great culture. But the future, quite physically and literally, is here, in away I wasn't so acutely aware of in Britain.

Here it's a great juggernaut. It's exciting, but also a little terrifying. The lovely sight of Jiajia made me realize in one instant the rise of the age of robots is upon us.

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