Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Minneapolis-St. Paul

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa-St. Petersburg news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa-St. Petersburg

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!
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

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Large coronavirus outbreaks leading to high death rates — Coronavirus cases are at an all-time high ahead of Election Day — Fauci says U.S. may not return to normal until 2022
  2. Politics: Top HHS spokesperson pitched coronavirus ad campaign as "helping the president" — Space Force's No. 2 general tests positive for coronavirus
  3. World: Taiwan reaches a record 200 days with no local coronavirus cases — Europe faces "stronger and deadlier" wave France imposes lockdown Germany to close bars and restaurants for a month.
  4. Sports: Boston Marathon delayed MLB to investigate Dodgers player who joined celebration after positive COVID test.
Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

Leon Black says he "made a terrible mistake" doing business with Jeffrey Epstein

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis/Getty Images

Apollo Global Management CEO Leon Black on Thursday said during an earnings call that he made a "terrible mistake" by employing Jeffrey Epstein to work on personal financial and philanthropic services.

Why it matters: Apollo is one of the world's largest private equity firms, and already has lost at least one major client over Black's involvement with Epstein.

3 hours ago - World

Jeremy Corbyn suspended by U.K. Labour Party over anti-Semitism report

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The U.K. Labour Party has suspended its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, after a watchdog report found that the party failed to properly take action against allegations of anti-Semitism during his time in charge.

Why it matters: It represents a strong break by Keir Starmer, Labour's current leader, from the Corbyn era and one of the party's most persistent scandals.