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China tech

Service robots lend a hand at China's banks and railway stations

Mechanical assistants could cut costs, but technology has kinks to work out

Xiao Si, a humanoid robot, helps customers seeking legal assistance at the Dalian Public Legal Service Center.

DALIAN, China -- Public facilities and banks in China are increasingly relying on robots to serve customers. While these mechanical helpers are expected to ease rising labor costs and improve service, they must become smarter if they are to really catch on.

In December, a humanoid robot, Xiao Si, was installed at the Dalian Public Legal Service Center in the northeastern Chinese city. Xiao Si's job is to help people find lawyers or other legal services. "Hello! You can ask me questions if you need any help," the robot tells clients cheerfully.

The robot looks similar to SoftBank Group's humanoid robot Pepper. This reporter, speaking Chinese, told Xiao Si he was looking for a lawyer, while pressing a button on the robot's chest. After a pause, a long message appeared on the screen: "It is easy to find a lawyer, but it is important to find the right person for the case," the message read.

Robots like Xiao Si began popping up with increasing frequency in China last year. The service robot market grew an estimated 27% on the year to 12.3 billion yuan ($1.81 billion) in 2018, more than double the size of three years earlier. And it is expected to grow nearly 30% this year, according to Analysys, a research specialist.

Service robots are being introduced to ease labor shortages and make businesses more efficient. China's working-age population, those aged between 15 and 59, fell to 915 million in 2017, down 2% from four years ago, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

The government hopes its recent decision to scrap the one-child policy will boost the population, along with other measures, but so far the results have been negligible. That could make it harder for employers in China to find the people they need.

And as economic growth slows, labor and other costs continue to rise. Chinese people are not as accustomed to personalized service as some; the level of customer service varies a lot. Chinese businesses, particularly in the service sector, are apparently responding by replacing people with robots to save money on employee training.

Robots are being used in a variety of industries. Last April, China Construction Bank, one of the country's four biggest state-owned commercial banks, installed a robot at its Shanghai branch to help customers apply for loans and withdraw cash.

In June last year, China Railway installed two robots at Shenyang Station, in the northeastern city. The robots take video of people in the station at all times. They are tasked with spotting fights and crime, identifying suspects and notifying police when they spot trouble.

Robots are being put to myriad purposes, including helping people get around and cooking. While they are sure to become more common in the future, there are still teething problems.

For one thing, service robots are still limited in the tasks they can perform. The legal assistance robot in Dalian, for example, can only provide information available on personal computers. Rudimentary voice recognition technology means they frequently misunderstand questions or commands. It is still too early to say that the robots really improve the customer experience. And they are expensive. It will be some time before they are a truly effective cost-cutting tool.

Chinese people tend to value developing new technologies, leaving it until later to work out the rough spots. Further innovation will be needed before the country's automatons are ready to shoulder the tough jobs.

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