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China’s robot uprising

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."
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