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Cyberfriends set out to prove worth to shoppers

By Meng Fanbin | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-12 07:58

Going shopping, even in a giant mall, can be a breeze, if you have a personal shopping assistant who takes all the pain away-giving you advice on which clothes suit you, guiding you to the nearest toilet, letting you in on the best stores for discounts and even lugging around the shopping bags.

Forget boyfriends, who are usually impatient and easily get lost. The U05 robot can promptly and tirelessly meet all your shopping needs.

Step into a mall that you have never set foot in and the U05 can recognize "who you are" and take you effortlessly to the products you really want, based on data about your previous spending habits, according to Zhao Botao, director of the marketing department of Canbot Technology Co Ltd.

Produced by the Shenzhen-based Canbot, the U05 is said by its manufacturers to be only the second mass-produced robot launched globally-after the Japan's Pepper robot made by Soft-Bank-that can be fully engaged in commercial use.

Soft Bank reports Pepper was launched in pilot programs last year to help customers in Californian retail stores-and the result was a significant increase in customers.

In July, the first 500 U05 are due to come off the assembly line, and all have been sold out, mostly reserved by shopping centers, museums and banks, Zhao said.

According to a report by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China's service robot market has entered a rapid growth phase, with annual sales expected to exceed 30 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) by 2020.

In the next few years, the annual growth rate of China's service robot sector will be around 17 percent, and the rate of market penetration will gradually increase, which means demand for service robots will grow, according to statistics from the Prospective Industrial Research Institute, an industry consulting company.

The market for service robots is larger than that of industrial robots, whose market is estimated by analysts to grow 6 percent annually.

Service robots help human beings, typically by doing a task that is repetitive, dull, or dirty like household cleaning. They typically are autonomous but can also be operated by a built-in control system, with manual override options.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, the essential difference with an industrial robot is that the latter's working environment is fixed and the service robot's working environment is unknown in the vast majority of cases.

The service robot has great development potential and a broad market appeal in China, because of soaring labor costs. Robots are expected to replace workers in more and more sectors, said a research note from the Prospective Industrial Research Institute.

"Suppose a company has to pay 120,000 yuan per year in wages for a staff member. If a company buys a U05 robot, it's only a one-off expense of 188,000 yuan, without other additional spending," Zhao said.

Last year, Shen Guoxin, vice-minister of industry and information technology, told a meeting that service robots could play a very important role and their development should be promoted.

The remarks were interpreted by industry insiders as an indication that service robots will see faster development in the coming years, supported by new policies and regulations.

The ministry is now organizing experts to study and formulate standards and certification conditions for catering service robots, so as to further standardize the industry and ensure product quality, according to a report by Shanghai Securities.

Some big companies have been involved in the service robot field, hoping to tap into demand from high growth industries.

However, small and medium-sized robot companies are still facing funding challenges. Analysts say research and development of a robot usually takes a long time, with the U05 robot for example having spent three years in the lab.

That's partly because the requirements for service robots-for intelligence, safety and reliability-are far higher than for other kinds of cyber products.

Zhao said many robots currently in the market fail to give customers a satisfying user experience, which has in turn weakened their enthusiasm to buy more products.

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