Detractors of artificial intelligence (AI) often warn of a terminator-like event or mass job losses if the technology is not contained. In light of these and other AI fears, Hong Kong-based start-up Rice Robotics has designed its autonomous robot with a vital feature in mind: “friendliness”.

The company has already deployed hundreds of its puppy-eyed AI robots throughout Japan and Hong Kong, and on Tuesday, it announced a fleet of its latest models – priced from US$10,000 each – were operating in the city’s iconic Citic Tower skyscraper.

“The beauty of this project is that in addition to deploying the robots, we have integrated them with Citic Tower’s building management system under one platform,” said Rice Robotics founder and CEO Victor Lee Kwok Hong.

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As a result, the robots are now able to take the lift and travel around the building seamlessly and autonomously, providing a 24/7 operation, he added.

While the cute-looking bots are expected to focus primarily on disinfecting the building’s 33-stories, they can also perform other duties such as deliveries, security patrols, and chat-based concierge services, according to the company.

The project, which took months of planning, is Rice Robotics’ first deployment of multiple robots inside a commercial building in Hong Kong, and is part of a larger automation trend in the city.

AI robots can be found throughout Hong Kong, from hotpot restaurants using autonomous waiters to the city’s international airport employing cleaning and sanitation bots, with tech giants such as Samsung Electronics supplying the market.
Victor Lee, the founder and CEO of Rice Robotics. Photo: Handout

Despite being founded in Hong Kong in 2019, Rice Robotics has been primarily focused on the Japanese market, where Lee says automation and AI robots have gained faster traction, mostly due to ageing demographics and labour shortages in the country.

According to a report from the International Federation of Robots, staff shortages are a strong driver for automation among service companies, with the total number of service robots sold for professional use reaching 158,000 units in 2022 – a year-on-year increase of 48 per cent. In the hospitality sector, the growth rate was 125 per cent.

The booming field has also caught the attention of investors. Doosan Robotics, which makes robots that can pour beer, brew coffee, and even cook fried chicken, was the largest initial public offering on the Seoul stock exchange this year, raising US$312 million.

Although Hong Kong has experienced a labour crunch over the past year, automation in the city has been primarily focused on human-enhancement instead of replacing workers, and adoption is likely to move slower than in Japan in the near term, said Lee.

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However, he believes the characteristics that have made Rice Robotics successful in Japan will transfer to Hong Kong, especially the robot’s friendly design, which was originally tailored to Japanese consumer sensibilities.

“The design features must have a human factor,” said Lee, adding that the company seeks to make the user experience as natural as possible.

“These robots are still a new product, and a lot of people still don’t understand what they can do, so it’s our job to educate and show that robots can be friendly and relieve burdens,” said Lee.

That thinking, according to Lee, was part of the rationale behind the name of the company: rice being an essential food staple for most Asian consumers.

Rice Robotics, which has raised about US$7 million so far, is hoping to announce its entry into new markets by the end of next year.

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