China’s internet giant ByteDance (字节跳动) decided to at least double its robotic team from about 50 persons by the end of this year, in a bid to satisfy surging needs to fulfill orders generated by its e-commerce business, according to a Chinese tech media scoop.
LatePost, an online publication affiliated with Caijing Magazine, broke the story today about ByteDance’s intentions to tap more deeply into robotics.
As it expands rapidly, the firm’s e-commerce arm is in greater need of robots capable of sorting, picking and packaging merchandise in warehouses, the report says.
ByteDance, the parent of popular short-form video apps like TikTok and its Chinese equivalent Douyin, was hardly associated with tangible tech innovation until in 2020, when founder Zhang Yiming expressed an interest in robotics.
He has since taken part in irregular discussions on internal robotic projects, says LatePost.
About a month earlier, Zhang attended a meeting with the robot team in the presence of several executives at ByteDance, including CEO Liang Rubo, chief of algorithm division Yang Zhenyuan and others.
At the meeting, Zhang reportedly encouraged the team to aim higher.
When some engineers suggested that 1,000 units represent the commercial threshold for any robotic industry participant, he and a few executives dismissed the numbers as “a bit too modest.”
Instead, they pointed to Tesla, whose boss Elon Musk bragged that the EV maker would build 10 billion units of its humanoid robots Optimus.
“If Tesla decides to manufacture 10 units, why would we be content with only 1,000 units?” LatePost quoted Zhang and a few executives as saying.
In addition to calling for setting more ambitious targets, the ByteDance management also appeared united on where its robot affiliate should be headed.
At the end of the meeting, it was decided that ByteDance will need to combine its robotic technology with existing businesses to “serve application scenarios and industries.”
This means the firm is poised to deploy its robots — now still at a R&D stage — primarily to use cases like an e-commerce order fulfilment center.
The management also resolved to use AI large language models on robots, to make them “more cognitively intelligent.”
Boston Dynamics, the builder of acrobatic robots like Atlas and agile quadrupeds like Spot, is often an object of envy and admiration in geek communities.
Somehow, it also draws flak for failing to convert fancy but expensive technologies into mass-market products after 30 years in the business.
According to LatePost, the ByteDance leadership clearly voted against the example of Boston Dynamics, vowing to imitate other industry practitioners.
As the Internet unicorn places a greater emphasis on delivering a better user experience, many observers predict that it will either follow the path of some AMR builders, to roll out handling robots, or produce robotic arms with visual senses and thus able to process orders themselves.
Media pundits argue that the form of ByteDance robot will eventually be determined by its demands for e-commerce order fulfilment.
ByteDance hasn’t disclosed the exact number of robots it is to manufacture this year, nor the details of a production schedule.
ByteDance has followed a few other internet giants with a move into robotics. Both Xiaomi and Huawei have announced plans to set up subsidiaries dedicated to robotics.
ByteDance’s involvement in robotics is also through investment. From 2019 onward, it has injected funds into a number of robotic startups, such as Narwal (云鲸), a producer of robotic vacuum cleaner, Infore Robot (盈合机器人), and autonomous warehouse robot developers iPlus Mobot (迦智科技), Syrius (炬星科技) and VisionNav Robotics (未来机器人).