China makes a play at personal robots

Meet your new robot Butler. Nǐ hǎo, sir.

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NXROBO's BIG-i personal assistant robot. Instead of hard plastic, the designers opted for a softer, warmer material.

China has become an exciting proving grounds for robotics development. The country's manufacturing centers are threatening to automate huge swaths of their human workforce, and China is already the largest user of robots in the world.

But aside from DJI, the massively successful consumer drone company, we haven't heard much about the development of exciting new robots that originate in China. That's partially because tech companies in China have followed a seemly pattern of abusing (or bulldozing) intellectual property and copyright laws to manufacture high quality components and electronics that bear more than a passing resemblance to products designed and marketed elsewhere.

But there are some encouraging signs that an emerging robotics scene in China will be genuinely innovative. It shouldn't come as a surprise. According to the China Robot Industry Alliance, the country is already the largest market for consumer robots in the world thanks to a statistically small but numerically large and growing wealthy class.

One of those companies is NXROBO, which debuted a new robotic butler at Pepcom recently. BIG-i, as the Butler is called, was designed to be fully mobile, able to navigate complex enviroments, recognize faces, and perform automated smart home tasks. Using natural language learning, the bot can be trained to do tasks on the fly by speaking to it, and it gets smarter the more you use it.

The Chinese government has a big stake in bringing robotics development in-country. Currently, more than 3/4 of all of China's robots are purchased overseas. And foreign firms have begun making a big play into China. French company Blue Frog Robotics recently introduced its Buddy companion bot to the Chinese market, and iRobot has developed a floor mopping system that specifically targets Chinese consumers.

BIG-i was developed by Chinese roboticist Dr. Tin Lun Lam, a research fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and part of a new generation of Chinese tech entrepreneur melding innovation with sexy design--the ol' Steve Jobs recipe. BIG-i, which in photos looks kind of like a kitchen trashcan, is covered in a soft material that's supposed to be more appealing in the household than hard plastic. It's certainly a nice minimalist design compared to some of the other "uncanny valley" humanoids that have come out in the last few years.

"We find ourselves on a road to a world where robot helpers are not just the norm, they're integral to our daily activities," a spokesman for the company tells me. "A world in which man has created not just a machine that can act like us, but one that enhances our lives; becomes indispensable to our homes. A future where humankind is finally aided by his proudest creation: a mechanical being capable of extraordinary things."

That's grandiose, but BIG-i looks like a worthy challenger on a suddenly very crowded block that includes companies like Aldebaran, Jibo, and Robot Base.

With voice programming, facial recognition, and motion tracking, BIG-i is meant to act like another pair of eyes around the house. For example, the company says it can be programmed to spot a child picking up fruit and remind him to wash his hands first, or it can remind you to turn off the oven. By learning a family's habits, BIG-i establishes relationships with each individual.

Ominously, the company spokesman also adds: "while staying loyal to who's in charge. It knows which people to listen to -- and which people not to -- and will prioritize your requests to keep the natural order of the household." That feels like a particularly Chinese touch.