Alex Gu Jie has been over the moon these days, basking in the adulation of business partners, fellow tech practitioners and even some policymakers.
The founder and CEO of Fourier Intelligence (傅利叶智能), a medtech startup-turned-general robot developer, was one of the seven tech executives who presented their innovations to Chinese president Xi Jinping during his visit to Shanghai last week.
“We showcased our latest general-purpose humanoid robot and related core components,” Gu was quoted as saying in an interview with local media. “The president watched attentively and showed considerable interest in humanoid biped.”
Image credit: Xinhua News Agency
The Shanghai-based startup introduced the prototype of its GR-1 humanoid robot at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2023 in July, to great fanfare.
Since then, it has iterated the product multiple times, with mass production already underway.
From medtech to general robotics
The robot, available in a no-frills lab version and a finished edition with a protective cover, represents the company’s pivot from a rehabilitation equipment developer into a leader in general-purpose robotics.
Underpinning this shift is a series of proprietary technologies including joint motion control as well as all-in-one actuator featuring high torque, Gu said.
Since the general robotics project was up and running early last year, Fourier has filed and obtained hundreds of patents on sensor, actuator, modular design and mechanical bionic structure.
Accumulated expertise in building exoskeletons — a robotic suit worn by victims of mobility impairment to exercise lower limbs or to walk again — laid the groundwork for branching out into general robotics.
GR-1 has 54 degrees of freedom, with 12 alone in its fingers — a level already among the industry’s best, according to Gu.
“The president noticed during our presentation that Fourier robots not just stand out for agility and dexterity, but also the nimbleness of fingers,” he noted.
This is a huge improvement compared to when the product made its debut, when an official video shows it was capable of not much more beyond walking and bypassing obstacles.
Nimble fingers are a key indicator of the fine motor skills of a robot, meaning the capacity to carry out delicate work like grabbing an object or striking a keyboard.
Gu told reporters that the so-called Fourier Smart Actuator (FSA) is built in-house and set to go through further optimizations to enhance its performance.
During his meeting with Xi, the issue of application scenarios arose several times.
“The president asked us the name of the robot and if it can converse with the user or be summoned to perform some tasks,” he recalled. “Going forward, with a large language model, [these functions] are completely attainable.”
A veteran in the robotic industry, Gu believes a shift from specialized-purpose robot to general robot is inevitable.
This is because humanoids can adapt to the artificial environment meant for mankind and do not warrant modification to it to become operational.
For instance, a humanoid biped can learn to climb the stairs, avoid obstacles and even grab a tool — the hallmark of advanced level of intelligence.
All we need, as he sees it, is to customize the robot for specific scenarios, so that it can unleash enormous potential in industrial production, rehabilitation, elderly care, scientific research, among others.
“This is akin to giving robots distinct roles, just like humans, from care giver and driver to cook and firefighter.”
Building an ecosystem
With Fourier’s GR-1 already open for pre-sale, Gu said clients, mostly downstream developer and integrators, have started to take delivery of a small but growing batch of the device.
Mass deliveries are expected beginning next year, as the company continues to improve technologies, slash costs and ramp up production.
Gu explained that the company’s focus is now on building an ecosystem surrounding GR-1. To achieve this goal, it looks to open up the hardware and software APIs for interested partners to join and construct an industrial ecosystem together.
The ecosystem comprises upstream core parts vendors, downstream application integrators and Fourier itself.
Gu hasn’t set a timetable for when to start this endeavor, but he stated that the vision is to turn robots into the next-gen smart terminal like smartphone and EV, so that “every industry can have their hands on a robot.”