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CES 2019: Why UBTech is on track to become our first robot overlord

Stormtrooper toymaker surprises CES show with new arms for intelligent humanoid robot.

CES 2019 preview: Separating facts from hype

Last year Chinese firm UBTech, maker of robotic toys like this Stormtrooper robot, unveiled a walking robot that, in what I assume was a case of extraordinarily literal translation, it called Walker. At this year's show, UBTech is demoing a new version of Walker, this time with a torso and pair of arms.

Humanoids are no longer particularly head turning in the robotics world. Boston Dynamics' Atlas and more recent humanoids like Sophia are common fodder for tech media and viral YouTube videos. 

But UBTech's new Walker is worth keeping an eye on, not so much for the technological leap forward it represents (although it is an impressive bit of kit) but for the clear signal it is that UBTech has ambitions to dominate a future when robots are fully incorporated into everyday life.

First some background. UBTech has nearly $1B in funding on a $5B valuation, yet it's most notable product to date has been that Stormtrooper robot, a not-particularly-intriguing toy that came out in 2017. So what gives?

Well, the battle to become the preeminent supplier of AI-enabled smart robots will be won at the patent office. With UBTech's war chest, there's no expectation of a quick return on investment, no play for a blockbuster home robot like the Roomba. UBTech is essentially an IP company right now, and its well-funded researchers are busy developing the building blocks for the robots of the future. The consumer-facing arm of the company, meanwhile, is doing all it can to build brand awareness, lowering the drawbridge for the eventual market assault. 


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"UBTECH is on a multi-year mission to bring robots into every home and business by making them more intelligent, personal, and human-like in every way," said John Rhee, senior vice president and general manager, UBTECH Robotics North America.

Walker stands just under five feet tall and has 36 actuated joints that work together to ensure smooth walking. A lot of the secret sauce is in the gait planning, which enables Walker to do something that's incredibly difficult for robots: transition from carpet to tile to steps.

Combined with face and object recognition, Walker's new seven-degree-of-freedom limbs allow the robot to detect and manipulate objects.

UBTech is hyping use cases such as retail and home assistance, much the same terrain covered by SoftBank's Pepper humanoid. But make no mistake, this robot is a stepping stone, an elaborate display of dozens of patents pertaining to path planning and deep learning.

In other words, Walker is the forebear of robots that may well be a big part of our lives in decades to come.

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