Innovation vital for the future of Chinese robotics

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/25 0:13:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Robotic vacuums and mops are indisputably some of the products through which people feel the most tangible benefits of the robotic era. This seems to be especially true in China where the market for robotic cleaners is expected to be the world's largest within two years.

This road to robot cleaning prosperity, it is believed, epitomizes China's rising prominence in the global robotics arena that is currently being led by the US. The Chinese market is expected to become a hub for robotics innovation, adding fuel to the fire of entrepreneurship and innovation in China.

With a rapidly growing middle class in China and the common household scenario that a husband and wife both have careers, the opportunity to get a little more help keeping one's home clean is highly valued. Having a robot as a tool at home is appreciated, and seems to work well with the hard-working culture in China.

In the near term, robots will be viewed as time-saving tools and as ways that people can continue to keep their home clean and tidy, which gives them more time to pursue a career. More importantly, robots are envisioned as a way to help handle China's aging population in the long term, since robots will offer people an opportunity to live independently for a longer period of time.

The promising future of robot cleaners, as part of an overall buoyant landscape for robots in the world's second-largest economy, has apparently lured in a galaxy of startups. Reportedly, a couple thousand startups in China are jumping on board. And it's not just a domestic endeavor. Foreign ventures are increasingly exploring paths in China. For example, in addition to reaching out to the Chinese customer, US-based robotic vacuum maker iRobot is looking for companies in China to invest in and seeking partnerships.

This serves as an indication of the vibrant entrepreneurial community in the country which boasts successes that can reach Alibaba-like heights. This shows more people that yes, it can happen in China. Its also highlights the fact that the country can match the US in terms of startup creation and accordingly lay the groundwork for China's global rise in the robotic era.

Around the world, one thing the US has always done effectively is create startups. The culture in Japan and Europe is not as conducive and entrepreneurship has not been as successful in these regions, however China has worked out its own entrepreneurship formula.

As such, while the US leads in the world of robotics today, tomorrow it could be China, or more likely the pair will together lead the future of robotics, as both markets are large compared with other countries in the world. Also, the numbers of startups in China and the US far outnumber startups everywhere else in the world. 

If that is to be the case, it's worth pointing out that if the fire of innovation - a vital pillar of robotics-driven growth - is to continue to blaze in China, a few improvements are required.

First, while there are many original ideas being developed in China, for instance, Shenzhen-based Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), widely considered a worldwide leader in drones, there are many companies where the entrepreneur tends to look to the rest of the world and says "that's a good idea, I could do that in China." Although they may still be successful, it's not creative. As a vibrant entrepreneurial country, China needs more companies like DJI where the entrepreneur has an idea and can create something new.

Second, intellectual property is important for small companies who want their inventions to be valuable and not copied. If products are copied without inventors receiving any benefit, then small companies will go out of business and entrepreneurs may not continue to innovate. Thus the country needs to ensure greater patent protection.

Last but not the least, entrepreneurship in China should be more about removing obstacles than offering incentives. In the US, in general, entrepreneurs don't tend to look to the government for help. They usually ask the government to get out of the way, because the entrepreneur wants the market and the consumer to reward them for understanding the consumers' needs, and they want venture capital to fund them, and this works. When the government gets involved, entrepreneurship in the US tends to not work. While China's culture is definitely different, entrepreneurship is not supposed to be dependent on either government support or encouragement. Instead, innovation should be dependent on the government allowing it to happen and making sure that they know why entrepreneurs cannot succeed.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Li Qiaoyi based on a recent interview in Beijing with Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of iRobot, the US-based maker of the iconic Roomba robotic cleaner.

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