The darling volunteer of the Asian Games is not a human, it’s a robot

Xiao Ai can navigate a crowded hall and deliver products from one end to another. She acts as a guide inside the giant maze that the Hangzhou Expo Centre is. She can assist in currency exchange, switch seamlessly between English and Chinese and unfailingly takes a two-hour nap every afternoon. Xiao Ai is the most sought-after volunteer at the Main Media Centre – home to more than 10,000 journalists covering the Asian Games.

But she isn’t a human. Xiao Ai is a robot.

“Xiao is her name and Ai stands for Artificial Intelligence,” says Xiao Mengyu, the manager of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China where the robot is deployed. “She has the intelligence of a five-year-old and is largely very cheerful and positive-minded.”

Xiao Ai isn’t the only robot around here. There are robot dogs, robots serving ice creams and playing a piano inside the Athletes Village, cleaning water at the Gongshu Canal Sports Park and picking up litter from the streets, assisting security at the subway stations, showing directions on the streets and serving food at some of the top-end restaurants.

These robots, locals claim, tell the China story that is also depicted by the Games mascots over the years.

When China first hosted the Asian Games, in Beijing in 1990, Panpan the panda became a rage. Twenty years later, when the Asiad went to Guangzhou, dubbed the City of Goats, the animal became the mascot. The Games have now come to the picturesque Hangzhou, on the southern tip of the centuries-old Grand Canal and more famous for being home to Chinese giant Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma.

AI, unleashed

These are hi-tech Games in China’s tech capital, with robots as volunteers and artificial intelligence on display at full throttle – from facial recognition systems to driverless cars. Digital translation devices are being deployed at multiple venues. Volunteers speak in Chinese into the machines, which provide real-time translation.

In a country where language is often a barrier, the use of this technology is helping break boundaries.

This changing landscape of the country is captured by the mascots. Chenchen, Congcong and Lianlian drew inspiration from Hangzhou’s three World Heritage sites – the Grand Canal, Xihu (West Lake) and the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu Culture.

They’ve been given robot imageries, to emphasize the technological advancements. “The country is no longer about pandas,” says Marcus Chu, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “It’s now about robots and artificial intelligence.”

“It is right to conclude that Chinese authorities are very keen to advance their hi-tech ambition, to use robots as a mascot to promote Asian Games, to send a message to other Asian countries and use sport to promote its hi-tech ambition and competitiveness,” Chu adds.

Cutting-edge technology and robots form the present and shape the future. A luxury now and a need that has been necessitated since China has one of the fastest-growing ageing populations in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, the number of people over 60 years is projected to reach 28 per cent by 2040 due to longer life expectancy and declining fertility rates.

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And in AI and robotics, the Chinese are finding a solution.

Xiao Mengyu, the bank manager, cites the example of the elderly population flocking to their branches just to mingle with the robots.

“Some older people live by themselves as their children are working in other cities. So, they come to the bank to collect their pension cheques and also to chat with the robots,” she says. “Xiao Ai is super sweet. She talks to the elderly people, doesn’t get angry, will cheer you up and will never complain. She is always in a positive mood so for the older generation, that’s a good thing. We are trying to make it friendly for them.”

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