Approaching the Robotics Institute at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Minhang campus, we have visions of androids buzzing around the halls and outwitting students in games of chess while quite possibly plotting a takeover of the planet. Entering the non-descript campus building and seeing a piece of notepaper stuck to a door with the words ‘better robot, better life’ scrawled across them brings us swiftly back down to earth. Yet while Jiaotong may not have a newsreading android like the ones unveiled in Japan last month, there is still some interesting work taking place here.
We meet with Professor Chen Weidong in a classroom where students are busy hacking various components from computer game consoles. The scanners used in machines such as Wiis or Xboxes, have been transformed into the ‘eyes’ of a self-driving wheelchair, for example, enabling it to map out its surroundings and avoid any obstructions ahead.
Chen offers us a ride in the chair (‘it’s very safe,’ he says, unprompted), programming in a destination in another part of the building and then standing in the chair’s path and waving his arms around at various points to demonstrate its capabilities in avoiding excitable professors. It’s a slightly juddery journey, but overall the chair’s maneouvres are impressive. The chair, which first went on trial during the Shanghai Expo, also has a memory capacity and is able to repeat certain programmed routes (for example, going to the local shop), while Chen says they are working on a new version with an ‘arm manipulator’ that will allow it to open doors and retrieve items from shelves.
Although we’re tempted to divert the chair to the mock road layouts that we spot on the floor of one room, we allow it to keep its course down the corridors until it arrives at what looks like a store room. A store room for robot parts. Metal shelves are stacked with various levers, wheels and other mechanical objects, along with a host of models and toys. There’s also a basketball hoop, which Chen explains is a practice net for an automatic ball-shooting machine developed by one of the students.
Inside the adjacent classroom, we meet the closest things the Institute currently has to androids – two wheel-based robots that look a bit like something out of The Jetsons. ‘We’re still working on the exteriors to make them more beautiful,’ says the professor as he explains that the pair are used as tour guides that can be controlled remotely. They’ve been employed at Chenshan Botannical Gardens to introduce types of plants to visitors and also to lead groups of schoolchildren through the Science and Technology Museum.
After Chen shows us some of the university’s ‘swarm robots’, which resemble mechanical skateboards and can be operated as a group to map out inhospitable terrain, a poster on the wall catches our eye. It’s for Jiaotong’s robot football team. ‘Ah, the football team retired a few years ago,’ Chen says. ‘It wasn’t really helping people or solving problems and we wanted to do something more useful. We wanted to help elderly and disabled people, not just provide entertainment,’ he adds, as we try to mask our disappointment.
As we’re leaving, we spot a 4X4 in the car park outside that is packed with computers and gadgets. It’s self-driving, we’re told, and can detect tiredness in drivers. Alas, the professor who has developed this vehicle is a little more cagey about exposing his work to the press and we’re not offered a lift back into the cente of town, leaving us to rely on the boring, human-operated metro instead.