Xiaomi Builds a Humanoid Robot for Some Reason

Xiaomi, a large Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer, has introduced a full size bipedal humanoid robot called CyberOne. It’s 177 centimeters in height and weighs 52 kilograms, and it comes with 21 degrees of freedom, with “a curved OLED module to display real-time interactive information.” Nifty! So, uh, its actual purpose is… what exactly?

Xiaomi’s intro-to-CyberOne video, above, leans on a pratfall gag that I’m 100 percent sure the robot can do. But as far as I can tell, if it in fact fell as part of its actual operations, it would shatter into a bajillion pieces with that fancy faceplate and all.

There is otherwise really not that much going on in this video. I got briefly excited when it walked up to that fallen tree, only to be disappointed when the feature it was advertising turned out to be “obstacle avoidance” and not “climbs nimbly over fallen trees.” I’m also not taking the rain resistance or overnight (?) endurance literally.

If you read Xiaomi’s press release closely, they’re pretty upfront—CyberOne itself is probably not intended to be all that useful.

In all, then, it appears to be a slick-looking bipedal robot that can walk pretty well without falling over, or at least without falling over on camera. Xiaomi says that CyberOne also has a vision system that can “create three-dimensional virtual reconstructions of the real world,” as well as environmental and emotion classification, although you don’t need a humanoid form factor for any of that. But why the heck is Xiaomi bothering with any of this?

We’re at the point where a tech company with plenty of resources can, with a moderate amount of commitment, design and build a humanoid robot. While I’m not suggesting that doing so is easy, I am suggesting that doing so with a practical and attainable goal is still very, very hard. Building humanoid robots that are robust and real-world useful is not something that’s been cracked yet, even by companies with far more experience than Xiaomi. So why are we seeing this happen?

I suspect that for some companies, it’s a means of attracting and retaining engineering talent while also having something fancy and high-tech looking to trot out on stage. But if you read through the press release, Xiaomi is actually pretty honest about CyberOne:

The development of CyberOne is a symbol of Xiaomi’s dedication to incubate a technological ecosystem centered in a single point, and connect it with the world in ways never seen before. Spanning from smartphones, wearable devices and smart homes, to smart manufacturing, smart electric vehicle and bionic robots, Xiaomi has been constantly exploring and extending its innovations in various scenarios so as to better connect people and the world, eventually building an ever-evolving Xiaomi Technology Ecosphere.

CyberOne’s research and development process combined cutting-edge technologies from a variety of sectors, including bionic perception and cognition, biomechatronics, artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, and visual navigation. These technological breakthroughs are also expected to give birth to more application scenarios in other fields, such as industrial robots with improved mechanical performance, companion robots with emotion recognition, and public service robots powered by big data and cloud computing. CyberOne’s technology will also be applied to more and more Xiaomi products in the future.

If you read these two paragraphs closely, a couple of things jump out: namely, that “CyberOne is a symbol,” its development is “expected to give birth to more application scenarios in other fields,” and that “CyberOne’s technology will also be applied to more and more Xiaomi products in the future.” To me, this is Xiaomi being very upfront with an acknowledgment that CyberOne itself is probably not intended to be all that useful. It’s not a first step towards any practical applications, but rather a way of exploring possibilities with technology that may have useful applications elsewhere, which seems perfectly reasonable.

Any way you look at it, more robots is great, and more clever people working on robots is also great. And as long as companies like Xiaomi are honest about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, both in terms of present capabilities and realistic future potential, bring on the slick looking humanoids!