Robots Take Center Stage At World AI Conference In Shanghai

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China doesn’t need the most advanced chips to take a leading role in global AI development, Zhang Ping’an, CEO of Huawei Cloud, said at the World AI Conference in Shanghai last week.

Based on the technologies exhibited at the conference, major players in the country’s AI industry may be attempting to draw attention away from China’s chip shortages and toward its advancements in a quintessential sci-fi form: humanoid robots.

According to Huawei’s Zhang, accepting the premise that advanced chips are the only path to AI leadership amounts to a de facto embrace of defeat. “If we believe that not having the most advanced AI chips means we will be unable to lead in AI, then we need to abandon this viewpoint,” he said.

While banned chips can be found in places like Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei electronics market, they are rare and expensive. As the United States continues to tighten its controls on chip exports to China, it makes sense that top tech executives would try to find an effective spin.

In lieu of a real solution to the chip shortage, the conference championed Chinese-made robots. In its coverage of the event, one Chinese media headline asked whether robots are “more promising” than large language models.

The article quotes an executive from Chinese tech company Moore Threads who made the intuitive yet compelling case that since so much information is nonverbal, large language models are limited in ways that fully enabled humanoid robots—equipped with synthetic eyes, ears, mouths and limbs—wouldn’t be. Creating robot brains that do not rely on LLMs may result in what he called “an unexpectedly intelligent entity.”

But the article also points out that designing hardware that can enable robot coordination—in addition to and in sync with their software capabilities—is a difficult goal that researchers are still working toward.

In that context, for robot enthusiasts, every advancement is worth celebrating. The World AI Conference tapped into that excitement, showcasing 18 mostly Chinese-made humanoid robots from companies including Fourier, Tlibot, Dataa Robotics, Robotera, Leju Robot, Shanghai Kepler Robot and Ti5 Robot.

Regulation, in addition to innovation, was also on display. A group representing industrial, legal and technical committees released “Guidelines for the Governance of Humanoid Robots,” designed to ensure robots do no harm and provide commercial value in line with “human moral values.”

Yet the conference was also host to companies that have business operations outside Shanghai’s regulatory jurisdiction. Tesla was one of very few American firms to be featured; it brought the second-generation model of its robot, Optimus (though the robot was kept behind glass and didn’t interact with attendees). In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told investors Optimus would be ready for use in Tesla factories in 2025.

From robots to electric vehicles, Tesla has enjoyed a degree of special treatment in China—possible due to the “symbiotic relationship” that has arguably developed between the automaker and the country in recent years. Just last week, Tesla was included on a list of approved companies for government procurement by the Jiangsu provincial government, partly in recognition of its manufacturing operations within China.

Despite the apparent faith Chinese regulators have in Musk, their ultimate aim is to promote domestic companies. Their objective of achieving technological self reliance hinges on homegrown industry.

Humanoid robots are an integral part of that larger plan. Last year, the Ministry of Industry and Informatization Technology released guiding opinions on developing them, emphasizing manufacturing applications.

More recently, on July 5, Premier Li Qiang presided over a State Council meeting focused on speeding up the digital transformation of China’s manufacturing sector. He said the industry regulator will focus on “specialized and innovative small and medium-sized enterprises,” adding that it will “give priority to promoting the digital transformation of equipment manufacturing enterprises.”

China’s leaders are heavily invested in applying advanced technologies to the country’s industrial base. They see manufacturing as the area with the most immediate commercial viability. Using AI to generate videos is a fun fictional exercise, but it does nothing to advance China’s long-term economic development and, possibly as a result, domestic and international political security.

Plus, regulating AIGC in China comes with a heavy censorship burden. Ideally, robotic factory workers will not require ideological supervision. But if their “intelligence” reaches the levels companies are hoping for, they eventually might.

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