Ibo Fung 

Industrial robots have been helping humans in areas like manufacturing and construction; recreation robots have been singing, dancing and even fighting against each other for the purposes of entertaining humans. Smart robots have even defeated human champions in chess and go, an ancient Chinese strategy game.

However, there is still be a long way to go before the vision of robots depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence becomes reality.

Many such Hollywood depictions of robotics remain fiction, but intelligent robots are nevertheless becoming a more real – and more useful – feature of modern society. Chinese intelligent robots maker Amy Robotics has made its robots helpful to businesses, and wants to make them an assistant to every family.

Entrepreneurship inside a racing car driver

Looking like a typical suit-and-tie business guy, Bill Li is not just the founder and CEO of Amy Robotics – he used to be a professional race car driver. Li had won a couple of titles in the China Rally Championship in 2003.

“I love racing. I love cars. Most men love cars, right? ” Li said.

Bill Li, Founder and CEO of Amy Robotics. Photo provided by Amy Robotics.
Bill Li, Founder and CEO of Amy Robotics.

Indeed, cars and racing are considered masculine. But not every man can turn them into a profession. As Li’s racing team grew too big, he chose to quit driving and work as an operation manager, organizing racing events with Formula One.

Li told AllChinaTech that these experiences were helpful in some ways when launching his startup later.

“Starting a business is just like racing. Both of them are psychologically demanding, requiring an ability to withstand stress and effective management of your team,” said Li.

Prior to his startup, Li held office as a director at Chinese automobile maker Geely Auto. He was in charge of the organization and operation of racing events, as well as technical exchanges with foreign auto companies.

However, as Li said, the spirit of personal challenges is in his blood. He wanted to set up his own company and enter the intelligent robot industry, something which was cutting-edge and challenging. There were also some emotional reasons behind the decision.

“I wanted to do something big. I want my grandchildren to see what I have done on my own when they grow up,” said Li.

A robot in need is a robot indeed

Li founded Amy Robotics in the southeastern Chinese city of Hangzhou in June 2015. The nine founding members of the company and eight of the technical specialists are overseas returnees: America, Germany and Japan are in the leading position in the robotics industry according to Li.

The company finished the development and research and testing of its robot prototypes within six months, and showcased them in the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016 in January, and in the industrial trade fair Hannover Messe, in April.

The company has two intelligent robots, the Amy A1 and the Amy M1. The Amy A1 is a household robot, which the company sees as a family assistant. It can interact with humans, read human emotion and behavior, gather and analyze family members’ health information, and tutor kids. It can also move on its wheels.

The Amy A1 intelligent robot is priced at USD 4,999, and will go on sale in China in October.

The Amy M1 intelligent robot is more a commercial robot, but it can also be used for the household purpose. It can be customized according to different needs of businesses, as well as hospitals, rehabilitation centers and shopping malls. Amy Robotics can put the information and data of a particular business into the Amy M1, and the robot can then answer specific questions about that business, and guide people where they want to go. The Amy M1 is priced at at least USD 10,000, depending on customization.

The Amy A1 & M1 robots share the same appearance at present.
The Amy A1 & M1 robots share the same appearance at present.

Presently, Amy Robotics is putting more attention on the Amy M1, since most Chinese families are not ready for a robot, according to Li.  About three quarters of the company’s robots have been sold to overseas markets.

“Currently we have hundreds of orders from foreign countries, including America, Germany and Denmark, etc.” said Li.

Li named the company “Amy” because he wanted to make a superior, or “Ace” robot that each individual user could call “my own”. He took the “A” from Ace and “my” from “my own”, and joined them for the company name.

His ambition was supported by investors: the company landed RMB eight million in an angel investment round in June.

“We want our robots to be truly useful to both families and businesses. It’s only really a robot if it does something genuinely useful,” said Li.

Service robots and household robots

According to market research firm Analysys, the market size of the service robot industry was RMB 8.2 billion in China in 2015. It will reach RMB 14 billion by the end of 2016, and RMB 20 billion by 2017.

As indicated by these figures, the China service robot industry is developing rapidly, but there is at least five years to go before household robots are popularized in China, according to Li.

“Most of the current household robots in China are more like toys for kids. They can’t be helpful in a real sense. Many of the commercial robots in the market are weak in terms of interaction with humans,” said Li.

The Amy M1 robot working at a hotpital reception.
The Amy M1 robot working at a hospital reception.

Li said there was still a big gap between Chinese robot makers and international ones, especially when it comes to household robots: foreign robot makers, including iRobot, VGO and Beam, simply have more accumulated technologies in computing and artificial intelligence.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have a chance. We can learn from them. And when we are at the same technical level with them, we will have the lower prices,” said Li.

The company is setting up R&D labs with American and European universities. Currently they have one set up at Carnegie Mellon University, and are in discussion with other universities in America and Europe to set up more. The company will fund research, and send technical staff there to learn from the foreign researchers, according to Li.

Although the company has gained profits from its overseas sales, the China market is yet to be developed. Li said the company aimed to ship 5,000 robots inside China in 2017, and 20,000 overseas for the same time period. By the end of 2017, he was confident that the company would be able to make ends meet.

“We have now made arms for our robots, and are testing prototypes. We are working on an exoskeleton robot. We hope our robots can be the right man to each and every family in a few years,” said Li.

(All photos provided by Amy Robotics.)

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