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The Olympic past and future of robotics hails from Shenyang

(People's Daily Online)    11:13, December 17, 2019

If you watched Beijing's eight-minute show at the closing ceremony of last year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, you might remember the fleet of dancing robots which helped out during the performance. These machines were created by a company called Siasun, one of China's earliest robot manufacturers, which originates in Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province.

Siasun is one of China's top ten enterprises in robotics and is the largest robot industrial base in the country. Its HQ is in Shenyang, but it also owns bases in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Qingdao, Tianjin and Wuxi. It has also opened branches abroad in countries such as Singapore, Thailand and South Korea.

As someone who doesn't know the first thing about robotics, and is still a little put off by the idea that they are going to take over all of our jobs and eventually read our minds, I wanted to come to Shenyang and learn more about one of the oldest robotics company in China. In a sector crowded with new enterprises and continually increasing competition, how has Siasun kept its title and grown at such a steady rate?

To give me a bit of insight, I met with Zhang Lei, the man behind the robots used during the Olympics performance, now president of the Mobile Robot Business Group at Siasun.

While showing me around the AGV shop floor, where they test products before shipping them out around the world, he explained that the Olympics performance opened a lot of doors for the company.

"We have been working in this market for quite a long time without being noticed, but that event caused a lot of attention and let people know that there's such a team - a group of people working in China who do good work," Zhang said.

Zhang explained that companies like his are doing so well because China is making a lot of changes. "In the past, China was famous for its low-cost labor and manufacturing capacity. But now, we are moving towards the direction of using high-tech. Our company has been prepared for this for a long time; we have a lot of good personnel; we have good talents, and that's why we catch good chances and are making good progress in international markets."

One way that tech companies are staying one step ahead is by identifying the most significant social issues, and seeing if they can apply robotics or AI to alleviate the problem.

For example, Siasun is currently developing robots to help in the healthcare industry, a sector that is reaching breaking point around the world, partly due to a growing elderly population. As the aging population increases, there are, quite frankly, not enough healthcare professionals to look after the sick or elderly. Tian Xueyong, Assistant GM for Medical Healthcare Robot BU at Siasun, explains that robots could help alleviate hospital staff and give the elderly and disabled more independence.

"We are working to provide solutions to various issues related to their (elderly) daily needs, daily trips and food, etc. These robots are being constantly and gradually applied to our lives to meet our demands and to solve issues that appear day by day."

Introducing some of their latest healthcare robots, I'm surprised how little they look like the cyborgs I had envisioned. The first just looks like a hospital bed, but can split into two, with one side turning into a wheelchair at the click of a button. Tian noted that this would free up time for nurses and doctors, allowing patients to get around more independently. Another movement aid looked just like any other walking aid, but was fitted with a smart motor which responds to human movement. So, if an elderly user were about to trip and fall, the walking frame would automatically lock, giving the patient some extra support and, therefore, independence.

The final prototype I was introduced to looked far more like a robot, a sizable motorized filing cabinet on wheels with a screen adorned with a cartoon face. This robot will one day be able to drop medicine and shopping off door-to-door, meaning those who find it difficult to get out the house may not need to make these non-essential journeys.

Each of these concepts would potentially alleviate pressure on the healthcare system and give the patient more freedom and a better quality of life.

Although previously I had worried about robots stealing my job, able to read my deepest darkest fears, what I've seen today has made me feel a lot more conformable with the idea of robotics helping in different areas of society now and in the future. With problems like an aging population and even a more unstable environment, robots could be the answer to some of our global challenges. And if nothing else, they do dance better than me! 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: He Zhuoyan, Bianji)

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