The University of Sydney has partnered with China’s biggest robot maker, UBTECH Robotics, in a $7.5million collaboration to create the UBTECH Sydney Artificial Intelligence Centre, within the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.
According to Professor Dacheng Tao, a renowned researcher in Artificial Intelligence (AI) who is leading the centre, it “will drive progress in AI to endow machines with the capabilities to perceive, learn, reason and behave.”
UBTECH is a key player in China’s consumer robotics push — it is amongst a number of Chinese companies devoted to developing bipedal (two-footed, human-like) robots for service, education and entertainment.
UBTECH is also a so-called ‘unicorn’ — a startup valued at over $1 billion. It’s currently working towards a $5 billion valuation, which would make it the most valuable robotics company in China.
The company already has numerous partnerships with technology giants around the world, including Apple, Amazon, Disney and Samsung.
A key aspect of UBTECH’s pitch is its commercialisation: it sets itself apart by designing and selling its robot products to a consumer market, and seeks to become the global leader in the field. At present, it has 70 per cent of the global small size humanoid robot market.
It intends to bring family robots into the average household within a decade, in the same fashion that cars once transitioned from luxury to the everyday.
James Zhou, UBTECH’s founder, says that UBTECH’s robots “could be your fitness coach, interpreter, business assistant, storyteller or weatherman.”
“Service robots will play an important role in kids’ education, daily companion, senior caring, home cleaning and other house works in the future, but it may take at least five years for common use,” Zhou has told Forbes.
“We’re aiming to maximise profits and assure we have the necessary investments to further the advancement of robotic technologies.”
To improve the robots’ various functions — such as image processing, voice recognition, motion control, navigation, balancing, and GPS locating — UBTECH is “collaborating with the most distinguished scientists and laboratories.”
The USyd partnership is part of this project: it is a centre that will focus on solving major problems in AI, although the commerical intention is still prevalent. Tao says that the centre is “working towards a future where humanoid robots walk out of our research centre and into ordinary people’s households.”
This is congruent with the pipe dream of Zhou, who, according to Forbes, describes himself as “A Daddy of Robots”.
“My target is that, in five to ten years, I will make the first commercialised real life size humanoid, 1.5 metres or 1.6 metres, serving families,” Zhou told China Money Network.
“For example, when you come back home, there’s a robot waiting for you asking ‘are you tired?’ I think he is more like a family member, not just a robot. Maybe she can even be my girlfriend. I mean everything is possible.”
UBTECH attracted attention last year when it broke the world record for “most robots dancing simultaneously” on China’s most-watched TV show. Whether gimmicks like this align with the University’s intention to “solve real-world problems that are needed to improve people’s lives” through this partnership, as per its PR statement — time will tell.
540 – the number of UBTECH bipedal humanoid robots breakdancing simultaneously
29 – the number of drones that sprinkled them in glitter at the end of their performance
148 – the duration of the dance in seconds
1 – the number of Guinness World Records set for ‘most robots dancing simultaneously’
4 – the number of months before the record was usurped by 1,007 dancing robots
7,500,000 – the number of dollars this company has invested in a USyd partnership