MB March | Rise of Robots

A local robotics firm is developing service robots that can be applied to various industries from hotels to conventions to elderly care in Macau and other markets

By Tony Lai 

Photos by Cheong Kam Ka 

Whilst strolling around the campus of the Macau University of Science and Technology you might notice some ‘security guards’ dressed in different attire patrolling the grounds. Upon greeting one stationed at the entrance to the dormitories it will immediately call your name if you are a student at the university – or will go on alert at the arrival of a stranger. 

This extraordinary memory, of course, does not belong to a human being but a series of locally designed and developed service robots – ‘Singou Guard I’ – created by Singou Technology (Macau) Ltd. The futuristic scenes of interactions between humans and robots that are often depicted in sci-fi movies now take place in the territory – with the potential of robots serving in various industries from hotels to events and conventions to facility management. 

Debuting last August following two years of development, the Singou Guard I robot, weighing about 65 kilos and 1.65 metres tall, has several major features, according to Dr. Hon Chi Tin, Chief Executive Officer of Singou Technology, which is supported by the Macau university.  

“It is incorporated with facial recognition technology,” he says. “The robot can accurately recognise 20,000 to 30,000 faces, much better than what mankind can do – which is about 500 faces.” 

While facial recognition technology might not be novel in today’s world, the standard for Singou Guard I is higher than similar technology utilised in smartphones like Apple Inc.’s Iphone X.  

“Iphone X only stores the facial data of one individual, the user, for unlock whilst our robots each store the facial data of, like, 10,000 students to distinguish each student,” Dr. Hon explained.  

Besides facial recognition, the robots can differentiate voices in English and in Chinese – from Cantonese to Sichuan dialects – in addition to walking about 15 kilometres non-stop on a full charged.  

“It’s better than what many people are capable of; for instance, I can walk at most five kilometres at one time,” he laughed. 

Hotel front desk  

A total of six Singou Guard I robots, with technologies developed by the Macau company and parts sourced from around the world, are now dispatched around the campus of the Macau University of Science and Technology with three more in Pui Ching Middle School and Macau Science Centre – plus a few more in projects in Mainland China. Most robots now serve as ‘security guards’ patrolling the premises, with each incorporated with front and back cameras so that the back office is fully aware of happenings on the premises. 

In addition to facility management and security the robots can be utilised for the hotel and convention sectors given their facial recognition and sound technology. For example, robots have been leased to some convention events in various Mainland cities to help guests register.  

In January, Singou Technology also inked a co-operation memorandum with Macau CTS Hotel Management (International) Ltd. for the introduction of robots to the hotels and restaurants which the latter manages. In the pilot stage, the robots will be stationed at the front desk of CTS hotels such as Emperor Hotel Macau and Hotel Beverly Plaza Macau in order to help guests check in and check out. 

“If the hotel has the photos and data of their guests they can simply show up in front of the robot upon arrival, which will give them room keys after identifying their faces,” Dr. Hon explained. “They can return the keys to the robot upon departure and settle the charges accordingly – giving guests a more [personal] experience.” 

“The robots can also be pre-set with answers to some basic enquiries, while other staff in the back office [of the hotel] could intervene if the robots cannot respond to more complicated questions from guests,” he added.  

Job cuts 

According to a study by research firm McKinsey & Co. last year as many as 800 million workers worldwide, or more than one-fifth of the current global workforce, could lose their jobs to robots and automation by 2030. Both the developed and emerging countries will be hit by the robot revolution, the study noted. 

Recognised by Singou Guard I as ‘Daddy’, Dr. Hon does not paint as bleak a prospect as the study, however.  

“The robots might replace humans in industrial scenes but I don’t see robots leading to job losses on a large scale in the services sector . . . which emphasises [human] interaction,” he remarked. “Service robots are designed to be helpers for humans, releasing them from some repetitive jobs in bad conditions . . . Robots only enhance the efficiency [of operations] and facilitate the development of society rather than replace workers.” 

Using a Mainland property project as an example, he estimated that of the 120-strong workforce for property management at most only 10 positions, one-twelfth of the total, would be occupied by robots to enhance the effectiveness of the operation. 

The application of service robots in various industries could also lead to the inception of a new job category – robot operator.  

“In my opinion, robot operators should have a higher salary level than average job types because one can control robots to fill, like, six job positions,” he added. 

Robot dealers? 

In the wake of last year’s launch, Dr. Hon revealed that many parties – not solely limited to Macau – had contacted the organisation for the possibility of introducing robots to their operations, although “we’ll see whether the market has potential in terms of the number of robots needed,” he said. As the research and development period might take some time, the demand for robots cannot be only for a few hundred but more than 10,000 – or even 100,000 – to lower the risks of input, he added.   

This is one of the reasons Singou Technology rules out the possibility of introducing robots to casinos, namely robot dealers. “Some parties have talked with us about this but we don’t think it would work,” he said. “Despite the dominance of the gaming industry here the number of casino dealers worldwide is not large and thus the number of service robots needed would not be big.” 

“It’s also true that the casino dealer is an important job type here and that the introduction of robots might have a negative impact upon society,” he added.  

Although it is not mandated by law, the position of casino croupier is one of the few job positions here that are reserved solely for locals amid the mounting pressure of local workers. According to Macau’s latest official data, there were about 23,980 casino croupiers in the city as at the second quarter of last year. 

Mass production 

Concerning the future development of Singou Guard robots, the company is now working on a smaller version for use at home and in elderly care centres.  

“The robots can help the elderly move around, communicate with their family members through videos, and perform simple medical checks, namely heart rate and blood pressure test,” Dr. Hon noted. “The robots can also detect if the elderly fall down and can call for [help in the event of] emergencies.” 

The pilot batch of 100 robots will be launched on the market in April and will be delivered to customers in September. “We’ve already had some verbal orders for a dozen robots,” he said. “Some elderly centres have also contacted us [for possible purchase].” 

Singou is also developing another smaller version of robot which could be used in cars. For Singou Guard I, Dr. Hon noted that the company has so far only produced a few robots, which are mainly leased but not sold to interested parties, given its current limited production scale.  

“We hope we can have a small-scale production this year and large-scale production next year,” he said, adding that the price of Singou Guard I is about MOP150,000. “We have a unit in Zhongshan [in Guangdong Province] now, which can be used for mass production for robots.” 

With the technologies developed in the city, the targets of its robots lie beyond the borders of Macau.  

“We actually have quite a lot of projects on the Mainland . . . and our robots won an award in the Shanghai International Service Robot Show last November,” he said. “Our robots have already garnered some reputation in the Mainland market.” 

“As the services industry in Macau is internationalised with standard skill sets, our robots could learn from this and advocate the best practices of the Macau services industry in other markets,” he believes. 

Flexible team 

Amid the development of robotics, Dr. Hon thinks the biggest challenge is the lack of human resources: the research and development team of Singou Technology now employs about 15 people, about half of whom come from Macau. But he noted that the Macau Government has input a lot of resources in science education in recent years for secondary school and university students, laying the foundation for them to pursue the path of science.  

With more projects at hand in the future, the CEO noted that the team of Singou Technology would cautiously expand by recruiting top-notch professionals. “We hope the size of the research and development team will be about 20-30 people as a large team might not be as flexible as a small team,” he explained. 

“We only use about 100 days to develop the small robots that can be used at home but a large team might take more than a year,” he said with a smile. “This is the advantage of a small team.”  

China the future for robots 

China is now the strongest growth driver for the robotics industry, given its low robot density vis-a-vis other developed economies and its goal to become one of the top technological industrial nations, say the International Federation of Robotics. 

According to the Federation’s latest annual report, China installed 87,000 new industrial robots in 2016, representing a 27 per cent hike from a year earlier and a record for new robots of any country. The annual growth of industrial robots in China could continue at about a 20 per cent pace by 2020, the report concluded. 

Due to the central government’s 10-year national plan ‘Made in China 2025’ announced in recent times China seeks to install some 600,000 – 650,000 new industrial robots by 2020 to boost its robot density – which is the number of robots per 10,000 employees – to 150 units by 2020, the Federation noted. According to financial news agency Bloomberg, China’s robot density is now about 68 compared to the 189 of the United States and 631 of South Korea.