Growing Applications Seen for Smart Robots

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) robots will increasingly grow across industries, providing new business opportunities, according to speakers at the 2017 Tech Trends Symposium, held during the HKTDC Hong Kong Electronics Fair (Spring Edition) 2017 (13-16 April).

At a 15 April symposium session entitled "The New Era of Robotics Disruption," four experts discussed industry applications of AI robots and relevant business opportunities, while highlighting the importance of nurturing talent in research and development (R&D).

(Image: HKTDC)

Wide scope of applications

Norman C Tien, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, said the 2016 victory of AI robot AlphGo over South Korean master Lee Sedol at the "Go" board game showed that the technology has come a long way. "Companies are all developing strategies for the robots to learn and get smarter," he said.

Professor Tien stressed that robotic technology has a wide variety of applications, ranging from civilian drones to medical sensors and self-driving systems. "Applications are boundless, as robotic technology can be applied in almost anything," he said. "The trend would be developing the technology that changes people's lives seamlessly like the smartphone or social media did."

For instance, he added, when vehicles are equipped with self-driving systems, people will no longer have to learn how to drive. Smart technology used to control the flow of vehicles. It will also eliminate traffic jams in future.

Adding value to "3D" industries, upgrading human resources

Dr Crystal Fok, Technical Lead (Robotics), Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp, predicted that smart robots will be used in various industries in Hong Kong in the next five years, including for tasks characterised as the "3D": Dirty, Dull, and Dangerous - such as for industrial laundry and construction-site welding. "The robot is a tool. With the technologies, robots can help tackle the problems," said Dr Fok. She stressed that robots will not replace humans but upgrade workers to value-added jobs.

Dr Chia-Peng Day, General Manager, Foxconn Automation Technology Development Committee, concurred that in the long run, robotic technology can be applied to factory automation systems, particularly in the "3D" sectors, adding that the technology involves a chained system rather than just a robot.

Enhancing efficiency

According to Dr Fok, Hong Kong's logistics industry has been a pioneer in robotic technology applications, particularly in developing smart warehouses where mobile robots pick, categorise and pack stock autonomously. She added that with the development of AI systems, it will be possible someday for multiple robots to work in the same warehouse to enhance production efficiency.

However, she added that the use of smart warehouses is not limited to the logistics industry, but may be extended eventually to other industries and is expected to be an area of high profit growth. She added that educational entertainment is another area where R&D in robotic technology had an early start and is yielding rewards.

Business opportunities through improving quality of life

Gordon Cheng, Professor and Chair, Institute for Cognitive Systems, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Technical University of Munich, believed there is potential for robotic technology applications in such fields as edutainment, medicine and industry. For the medical and industrial sectors, he expected the technology to become widely used as technological costs gradually decrease.

He added the development of AI technologies should focus on enhancing the quality of life. He cited the example of the 2014 World Cup, which was kicked off by a paraplegic wearing an AI-controlled exoskeleton. Germany is developing different types of force cell sensors that may be applied to smart robots, and conducting experiments for medical applications to help disabled people live a full life.

Professor Cheng also highlighted the possibility of replacing domestic helpers with smart robots, adding that Europe and the United States may be forerunners in employing the technology for this purpose given the high cost of employing domestic help.

China potential, global need for nurturing talent

Dr Day noted that China is promoting the development of robotic technology through large-scale investment and policy support, and is poised to become a leading adopter of the technology.

He also highlighted the need to nurture global talent for the field, underscoring the importance of educational investment. For Hong Kong, Dr Fok also saw a need to nurture local R&D talent that responds to developing trends.

Professor Tien emphasised that the city needs to build an ecosystem conducive to the development of innovation and technology. He noted that the government has invested HK$18 billion in fostering the development of innovation technology, and set up a HK$2 billion fund for investing in local tech start-ups. Professor Tien added that the Robotics Alliance of Hong Kong, which he chairs serves as a link between the industry and local R&D institutes in facilitating the exchange of ideas and technology.

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