Oct 25, 2018

China’s robot uprising

Expand chart
Reproduced from the International Federation of Robotics; Chart: Axios Visuals

China bought 36% of all factory robots in the world last year, more than any other country including the U.S., and intends to ramp up its own production of them — another sign of its determination to be the pre-eminent technological superpower.

Why it matters: With the U.S. and China locked in a race to master artificial intelligence and quantum computing, robotics are a third, quieter competition between them. Mastery of any or all the three technologies is seen as key to geopolitical and economic power in the coming decades.

"If you are an industrial robotics supplier, China is a short-term sales opportunity, but a long-term competitive threat."
— Gregory C. Allen, Center for a New American Security

China’s robotization has unfolded extremely quickly. The number of industrial robots in the country nearly doubled between 2015 and 2017, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

  • Still, China lags in "robot density," or the number of industrial robots per 10,000 workers, according to IFR stats. But that, too, is changing fast.
  • The trend has been driven in part by rising wages, which have made it more expensive for companies to manufacture in China, says Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • The other main factor is China’s push to get into manufacturing sectors that require advanced robots, like building semiconductors, he says.

Because of the speed of these changes, China has been importing robots in huge numbers. But if all goes according to Beijing’s plan, the flood will only be temporary.

  • China intends to crack the top 10 most automated industries by 2020, according to the IFR, which writes in its 2018 World Robotics report that "a huge increase in local production of industrial robots is anticipated."

China's ascendancy to a robotics giant would represent a significant global shift.

  • "The geopolitical implications of China dominating AI and robotics are powerful, even corrosive," says Eleonore Pauwels, a researcher at the United Nations University and director of the AI Lab at the Wilson Center.
  • "The new world order will be defined by a country’s capacity to harness the convergence of AI, robotics and other emerging technologies to achieve economics and security dominance."

She says China will look next to entering markets in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

  • Distributing its robots around the world, China could gather extremely valuable personal data that can boost business — or be used for espionage.
  • "These datasets are the next gold," says Pauwels. "The country that dominates AI and robotics will set the design rules for what data these robots capture, how they work with or replace us, and how they get integrated into society."
  • Imagine a healthcare robot that becomes popular in the U.S. The data the bots gather could deeply inform Chinese healthcare companies about Americans' health and provide an edge over competitors, said Abishur Prakash, a consultant for the Center for Innovating the Future.

A potential harbinger: drones.

  • Nearly two-thirds of the world’s commercial and consumer drones are made by China's DJI.
  • Last year, the NYT reported on U.S. suspicions that DJI was sending sensitive data from the drones back to China. DJI has denied the reports.
  • Prakash worries that Beijing could remotely alter the behavior of exported Chinese robots — thereby "hijacking a company’s economy by messing with their robots."

Go deeper

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

There are no COVID-19 patients in hospital in New Zealand, which reported just 21 active cases. A top NZ health official said Tuesday he's "confident we have broken the chain of domestic transmission."

By the numbers: Almost 5.5 million people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday, and more than 2.2 million have recovered. The U.S. has reported the most cases in the world (over 1.6 million from 14.9 million tests).

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

Coronavirus antibody tests are still relatively unreliable, and it's unclear if people who get the virus are immune to getting it again, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned on Tuesday.

By the numbers: More than 98,900 people have died from COVID-19 and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Over 384,900 Americans have recovered and more than 14.9 million tests have been conducted.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 9:30 p.m. ET: 5,588,299 — Total deaths: 350,417 — Total recoveries — 2,286,827Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 9:30 p.m. ET: 1,680,625 — Total deaths: 98,902 — Total recoveries: 384,902 — Total tested: 14,907,041Map.
  3. Federal response: DOJ investigates meatpacking industry over soaring beef pricesMike Pence's press secretary returns to work.
  4. Congress: House Republicans to sue Nancy Pelosi in effort to block proxy voting.
  5. Business: How the new workplace could leave parents behind.
  6. Tech: Twitter fact-checks Trump's tweets about mail-in voting for first timeGoogle to open offices July 6 for 10% of workers.
  7. Public health: Coronavirus antibodies could give "short-term immunity," CDC says, but more data is neededCDC releases guidance on when you can be around others after contracting the virus.
  8. What should I do? When you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus — Traveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy