Cold feet, not cold shoulder, keeps Chinese humanoid robots away from CES 2024

China's humanoid robot segment was all the rage last year, with a dozen companies introducing their models or issuing statements about their foray into this nascent sector.

The red carpet has been rolled out, but some guests appear to be a no-show.

Chinese humanoid robot developers are conspicuously absent from CES 2024 in Las Vegas from January 9 to 12, with less than three companies taking their technologies to the tech exhibition.

According to a list of exhibitors available on the website of CES 2024, only two Chinese firms involved in building humanoid robot, the darling of the domestic tech community since last year, are present this year.

They are Unitree (宇树科技) and Kepler Exploration (开普勒探索).

Unitree unveiled its first-generation humanoid model H1 in August last year. With a height of 180.5cm and a weight of 47kg, H1 is one of the most-watched models in the humanoid robotic communities at home and abroad.

Unitree’s sales reps with Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics. Photo courtesy of Unitree

Founded with a focus on quadruped robot, Unitree has resolved to venture into humanoid robotics last year, thanks to a change in perspective of its founder and CEO Wang Xingxing.

At the World Robot Conference 2023 last year, Wang said his perception of humanoid robot shifted dramatically following huge inroads in generative AI.

“A few years earlier, I was downbeat about humanoid robots, because I thought then that the motion control technologies at our disposal were inadequate in manipulating such a complex robot as a humanoid,” Wang noted.

Less than 300,000 yuan

This was until the end of 2022, when exponential growth in AI technologies served as a rude awakening to Wang that the development of AI had far outpaced that of robotics.

Unitree now supplies its H1 mainly to AI labs and research institutes, among other clients, for further development.

Rumors said that the Hangzhou-based firm looks to bring its price tag to less than 300,000 yuan (US$41,880), roughly on par with the sticker price (US$20,000) Elon Musk envisaged for Tesla’s Optimus Gen 2.

Wang revealed earlier that Unitree is working on the mass production of H1, with delivery due to get underway in the third quarter of this year.

Wang Xingxing, founder and CEO of Unitree, attends World Knowledge Forum in South Korea in 2023. Photo courtesy of Unitree

Aside from Unitree, Kepler Exploration is another startup that chose to showcase its humanoid biped at CES 2024, the first time its technologies are put on display abroad.

The Kepler humanoid model, which is meant for a variety of applications from industrial manufacturing to smart unmanned inspection, came out in November 2023.

Standing 178cm tall and weighing in at 85kg, the robot possesses a 100TOPS computing power and has 40 degrees of freedom — with 12 on both hands for the manipulation of tasks that entail nimbleness.

Kepler boasted that before its debut, the model had undergone four iterations. Mass production and delivery are expected in the third quarter of this year.

The most eye-catching of all is that the firm announced in an official WeChat post that it will price the standard version of the robot at US$30,000 in the global market.

If attainable, this price level will considerably accelerate the adoption of humanoid robotics in real-world scenarios, Hu Debo, one of the co-founders, said.

Kepler Exploration’s humanoid robot models. Photo courtesy of Kepler Exploration

China’s humanoid robot segment was all the rage last year, with a dozen companies introducing their models or issuing statements about their foray into this nascent sector.

The momentum is likely to continue well into this year and the next, amid a capital frenzy over humanoid robotics and the increasing likelihood of this innovation to be applied in at least a few sectors in coming years.

Political considerations

Nonetheless, this hardly explains why many of them chose to lie low and shun CES 2024 — and as a result losing the limelight that could have helped generate buzz and secure future buyers.

Fourier Intelligence (傅利叶智能), Xiaomi (小米科技), Dreamtech (追觅科技), Agibot (智元机器人) and CloudMinds (达闼科技) are among a number of domestic humanoid robot developers that rode the wave of the humanoid mania last year.

Somehow they all opted to stay out of CES 2024, not even bothering to ship a model to be exhibited at the tech show or entrusting this task to their US dealers.

Political considerations might have played a role. CloudMinds, for instance, is on the Entity List released by the US Department of Commerce and thus barred from trading with US companies or getting access to US technologies like chips.

In other words, no conceivable good can ever come out of attending the tech fair.

Amid intensifying US-China tech rivalry over chips, AI and others, cold feet, instead of cold shoulder, seems to be keeping Chinese companies away from the much-hyped tech event at the beginning of this year.

Material handling and assembly line jobs are some possible use cases for Kepler’s humanoid robots. Photo courtesy of Kepler Exploration

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Ni Tao

Ni Tao is the founder and editor-in-chief of cnrobopedia. Prior to cnrobopedia, he had a full decade of experience with a major state-run English-language newspaper as a tech reporter and opinion writer. He is also a communications specialist, having provided consultancy services to established firms like Siemens, Philips, ABinBev, Diageo, Trip.com Group (Nasdaq: TCOM, HK: 9961), Jianpu Technology (NYSE: JT) and a handful of domestic startups. A graduate of Fudan University, he writes widely about China's business and tech scenes and other topics for global publications including South China Morning Post, SupChina, The Diplomat, CGTN, Banking Technology, among others, and tries to impart his experience to students at Fudan University Journalism School, where he is a part-time lecturer. When he's not writing about robotics, you can expect him to be on his beloved Yanagisawa saxophones, trying to play some jazz riffs, often in vain and occasionally against the protests of an angry neighbor. Get in touch with him by dropping a line at nitao0927@gmail.com.

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