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Humanoids dominate spotlight at WRC 2023

Updated: 2023-08-25


Humanoid robots perform at the WRC 2023 in Beijing on Aug 18. TANG KE/FOR CHINA DAILY

BEIJING — Chinese tech companies are venturing into human-like robotics in an attempt to cash in on huge market opportunities in the coming years.

At the weeklong World Robot Conference 2023 in Beijing, which began on Aug 16, eager attendees were treated to a remarkable display of cutting-edge robotic prowess. The humanoids arguably took center stage, astonishing visitors with mesmerizing dance routines, jaw-dropping somersaults and meticulously choreographed hand gestures.

Among more than a dozen humanoid showpieces, many eyes were on Unitree H1, a 1.8-meter-tall, 47-kilogram laser-radar-equipped humanoid that can move over 1.5 meters per second.

Its maximum knee joint torque reaches 360 newton meters and each leg has five degrees of freedom, according to Unitree Robotics, a Hangzhou-based robotics startup whose machines were featured at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the pre-game performance of Super Bowl LVII in 2023.

A demo clip played at the booth showed that the lanky, futuristic robot was capable of restoring balance within two steps in the wake of an abrupt kick and could even slightly sidestep in advance after sensing a human's foot-lifting intention.

Unitree H1 has even impressed tech industry leaders, with Andrej Karpathy, a founding member at OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT, tweeting, "I want one. Or two. A few."

Karpathy's wish may soon come true, as Unitree developers hope to roll out their robotic tech to industrial and consumer projects in the coming years.

CyberOne, an emotion-detecting humanoid robot developed by Xiaomi, the renowned Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer, was also a magnet at the just-concluded WRC. Measuring 170 centimeters and weighing 52 kg, it supports up to 21 degrees of freedom of motion and achieves a real-time response speed that allows full human movement simulation.

"Humanoids can integrate the functions of multiple single-purpose devices like mechanical arms," said Shao Yuanxin, Xiaomi's project manager. "Cyber-One is expected to be used in Xiaomi's smart manufacturing."

A group of humanoids with extremely flexible joints cut dashing figures when they performed the complex Chinese choreography of Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva at the 2023 World Artificial Intelligence Conference held in Shanghai last month. At this year's WRC, the developer, Dataa Robotics, programmed the Cloud Ginger robots to play basketball, and, true to the humans they emulate, some of their shots missed the basket.


A display of cutting-edge humanoid robotic technologies is seen during this year's WRC in Beijing. WANG YUGUO/XINHUA

Tora, an artificial intelligence-driven robot developed by PaXini Tech, showcased its strength and tactile senses. The "sensitive" machine can feel the shape, temperature, rigidity and roughness of an object. Its tailored editions have already been used in sorting cargo, hotel service and elderly care, according to the Shenzhen-based startup.

Rounding out the big hitters at this year's show were robotics giant Ubtech's panda robot Wukong from Zhejiang University and Xiaobei from China Electronics Technology Group Corp.

About 160 domestic and overseas robotic manufacturers brought nearly 600 exhibits to the WRC — one-tenth launching their global premiere.

On Aug 18, Chinese startup Agibot launched an AI-enabled humanoid product and its founder vowed to keep the robot's cost within 200,000 yuan ($27,468).

Following the market frenzy surrounding robotic dogs, a surge of Chinese investors has eagerly shifted their focus to humanoids over the past two years. According to industry projections, the burgeoning humanoid market is poised to skyrocket to about 75 billion yuan by 2025.

Supported by increasingly powerful AI capabilities, humanoids are becoming smarter. However, their affordability is a challenge for quick market applications, according to analysts.

"As a manufactured good, humanoids can only have a solid market when costs are lowered to an acceptable level," said Guo Qianqian, an analyst from Essence Securities.

At less than $90,000, Unitree H1's "price tag can be a game changer," said Jim Fan, a research scientist at AI chip giant Nvidia in a tweet, arguing that Boston Dynamics' robotic dog costs $75,000 and is much less complex.

"Unitree H1 is within budget for many university labs and almost dirt-cheap for tech companies," said Fan.