The mind-reading headsets won’t read minds. The fire-detecting machine has been declared a safety hazard. The robot waiter can’t be trusted with the soup.
China is ready for the future, even if the future hasn’t quite arrived.
China has become a global technological force in just a few short years. It is shaping the future of the internet. Its technology ambitions helped prompt the Trump administration to start a trade war. Hundreds of millions of people in China now use smartphones to shop online, pay their bills and invest their money, sometimes in ways more advanced than in the U.S.
That has led many people in China to embrace technology full tilt, no matter how questionable.
That embrace of tech for tech’s sake — and the sometimes dubious results it leads to — were on display at the Global Intelligence and World Business Summit, held last month in Shanghai.
When nothing happened
The seven men and two women onstage were told to envision themselves pressing a button. The headbands would transmit their brain activity to the robotic hand sharing the stage, which would then push a button to officially start the conference.
A countdown began. A camera put the robotic hand onto a huge screen above the stage. The people onstage seemed to concentrate. And then, nothing happened. The hand remained motionless. The camera panned away.
A spokesman for Yiou, the tech consultancy that hosted the event, declined to comment except for: two emojis showing tears of joy. All of this embarrasses some people in the Chinese tech scene. They warn that the excess exuberance is one sign of a venture capital bubble, which may be about to burst. Rather than show China’s newfound tech might, they argue, spectacles like dancing robots and ineffective mind readers cover up the country’s lack of progress in other areas.
Those deficiencies were made clear in April when the the government forbade U.S. companies to sell chips, software and other technology to ZTE, a Chinese telecom company. ZTE was found to have violated U.S. sanctions by selling products to Iran and North Korea. The ban brought the company to a virtual standstill.
Chinese people shouldn’t lose touch with reality, warned Liu Yadong, chief editor of the state-run
Science and Technology Daily
. In a recent speech, he said China still lagged the U.S. in tech, and that those who argued otherwise ran the risk of “tricking leaders, fooling the public and even fooling themselves.”
The E-Patrol Robotic Sheriff is a case in point. It patrols the high-speed rail station in the city of Zhengzhou, tasked with using facial recognition to find and follow suspicious characters, as well as to measure air quality and detect fires.
During a winter visit to the station, the robot was nowhere to be found. First, it had missed a fire, officials said. It also had a tendency to collect so many selfie-seeking fans that it became a safety hazard.
Then there are Robot restaurants that have been popping up across China. One in Shanghai’s Xujiahui district, Robot Magic Restaurant, cultivates a space-age, mini-golf ambience.
Waiters said their automated counterparts caused more work than they saved. The robots take trays of food out to customers, but are unable to lower them to the table. Real waiters stand back so photos and videos can be taken before shuffling in and serving food the old-fashioned way.
The robots also break down.
Still, patrons were impressed. “I’ve just been to America, and I didn’t see many new things at all,” said Xie Aijuan, in her 50s.NY Times
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