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Behind the 540 Dancing Robots: Meet Alpha 1S

The dancing robots were the stars of the night at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala this year. Singer Sun Nan performed with a total of 540 robots at the Guangzhou Gala venue. This is the story behind the act; meet China’s first humanoid robot Alpha 1S.

Manya Koetse

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Dancing robots were the stars of the night at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala this year. Singer Sun Nan performed with a total of 540 robots at the Guangzhou Gala venue. Read about the background of the act and meet China’s first humanoid robot Alpha 1S.

The Alpha 1S became famous overnight after its impressive performance at the   CCTV Gala. It was a case of “ten years of practice for one minute on stage” (“台上一分钟,台下十年功”), says the Tech reporter at China’s news platform Tencent. They spoke with the technical staff behind the robots after the Gala. Chinese Mandopop singer Sun Nan (孙楠) sang the song “Going to the Top” (冲向巅峰) as 540 robots were dancing around him, all doing exact same movements at the exact same time.

Meet Alpha

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The robot is China’s first humanoid smart robot. It belongs to the Alpha robot family (阿尔法家族) and carries the name Alpha 1S. It is a truly made-in-China product, developed by Chinese tech experts and locally produced. The creators of Alpha 1S, Chinese company UBTech (圳市优必选科技有限公司) spent five years and over 50 million RMB (7.6 million US$) to produce their star robot, designed for families. In many respects, Alpha 1S is a pioneering work, especially when it comes to the patented computer system at its core. According to Tencent, its technique “surpasses that of American, European, Japanese and Korean robots.”

One of the reasons why Alpha has such good dancing skills is because it has 16 different joints, giving the robot the freedom to move like a human.

alpha2whatsonweibo.com

His eyes are flickering blue-ray LEDs with sensors. On the evening of the Gala performance, all robots were numbered so that technical staff could control the twinkling of the eyes in every single robot.

The robot’s software is compatible with both Android and IOS mobile systems, and can also be linked to a computer. Users can edit the robot’s programme themselves, which is also possible for people with little knowledge of robots or programming. Even more awesome: you can preview the robot’s movements in a 3D visualisation on the computer, making it easy to edit and change its movements after seeing them on screen. With the Alpha app, it is also possible for owners to programme movements by playing around with their robot; it will then remember the movement sequence. This means you can let the robot dance in whatever way you want (- we cannot get over how cool this is).

The Gala performance

On the night of the Spring Gala, a total of 540 Alpha robots were lined up in a military square-shaped formation, standing in four groups of 9 x 15 robots. The technical staff had programmed the robots with 12 sets of dance steps, all of its movements in line with the rhythm of Sun Nan’s “Going to the Top” and completely in-sync – a Guinness Record.

robotformation

According to Tencent, Alpha 1S was only invited to take part in the Spring Gala one month before Chinese New Year, letting the technical staff, a team of 36 experts, work day and night for an impeccable Gala performance.

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In order for the performance to go smoothly, the staff also had to deal with two problems. The first was that the robot originally could only have a maximum distance of 50 meter to the control desk. This distance needed to be bigger for the great Gala venue, for which experts changed the transmitter, making it possible to control the 540 robots within a range of 5000 meter.

Another risk was that colliding robots would result in a possibly disastrous domino effect. But for the camera to properly capture the perfect formation of robots, they still had to be lined up near to each other. The LED lights in the robot’s eyes with sensor were thus programmed to be ultrasensitive to distance and to stay within a 0.6 m x 0.6 m distance.

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Every millisecond of the performance was tested in great detail and practised over and over again to make sure nothing could go wrong on Sunday night, February 6th, during the live show of the Gala.

China’s future

Alpha 1S is China’s first programmable, interactive and affordable robot meant for family entertainment. The features of Alpha 1S are promising and show that much more will be possible in the near future. Alpha’s brother Alpha 2 will be less affordable (around 8000 US$), but can already do much more than dancing; this robot can act as a tutor, translation, personal assistant and help doing household tasks.

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Weibo netizens praised the robots’ Gala performance. One Weibo netizen says that her boss bought the CCTV Gala robot, and that all people in the office put their work down to see the robot dance along to ‘Gangnam Style’.

The Alpha 1S can be bought online. On Taobao, the robot is sold for around 3000 RMB (±450 US$)

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On a side note: remarkably, the multiple promotion campaigns for the made-in-China robot does not feature Chinese-looking models – making it seem like an American or European product.  

A woman named Sima comments on Weibo: “What interested most about the CCTV Gala were the robots dancing together with the drones on Sun Nan’s song. It was such a novelty – this is China’s future!”

By Manya Koetse

Images via CCTV screenshots by Whatsonweibo.com and Tencent
Gifs via http://www.wanhuajing.com/d84556

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

China Digital

WeChat’s New Emoji Are Here (Including a Watermelon-Eating and Doge One)

WeChat’s new emoji are based on popular memes.

Manya Koetse

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On January 14, Tencent’s Wechat introduced new emoji to its existing emoji set. The new emoji include, among others, a watermelon-eating emoji and a smiling Shiba Inu.

On Weibo, the new emoji have become a topic of discussion under the hashtags “WeChat’s New Emoji” (#微信上线新表情#), “WeChat’s Watermelon Eating Emoji” (#微信上线吃瓜表情#), and “WeChat’s Dog Emoji” (#微信上线狗头表情#).

Different from the Unicode emoji (see Emojipedia), WeChat and Weibo have their own sets of emoji, although there is overlap.

The reason why especially the watermelon-eating and dog emoji are being discussed on social media, is because these emoji are based on popular internet memes.

“Eating watermelon” (吃瓜 chī guā) is an online expression that comes from “watermelon-eating masses” (吃瓜群众 chī guā qúnzhòng), which describes a common mentality of Internet users who have no idea what is actually going on but are still commenting or following online stories for their enjoyment – perhaps comparable to the “popcorn memes” that are ubiquitous on Western social media platforms.

The smiling dog has been around since 2013 and is known as the doge meme, based on a photo of a Shiba inu. The meme was originally spread on social media platforms such as Reddit, but then also became hugely popular in China, where it became a symbol of sarcasm (also read this Abacus article on this topic).

Other new emoji are the “wow” emoji, and others to express “ok,” “add oil,” “emm,” “oh!”

There’s also a “shehui shehui” (社会社会, lit. “society society”) emoji, which also comes from online culture and is a way among friends to (self-mockingly) talk about being ‘gangsters,’ ‘brothers.’ or ‘scoundrels.’

As the new emoji are still in their testing phase, not all WeChat users can use the new emoji yet, so you might have to wait a bit before being able to try them out.

By Manya Koetse, with thanks to @caaatchina
Follow @whatsonweibo

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Backgrounder

‘Good Doctor’, Digital Hospitals: How Mobile Apps Are Alleviating China’s Healthcare Problems

With the rapid digitalization of China’s healthcare, Chinese patients now have more ways than one to receive medical assistance.

Manya Koetse

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China’s healthcare industry is facing some serious challenges. As Chinese society is rapidly digitalizing, mobile apps now provide innovative solutions to alleviate pressing problems in the country’s health services sector.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “Good-Doctor Apps und Digitale Krankenhäuser.” 
 

Social Credit System, artificial intelligence, surveillance cameras; these are some of the hottest topics making headlines in mainstream Western media when discussing China-related developments recently.

With the rapid digitalization of Chinese society, these topics certainly have come to play a more important role in social media discussions within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But if there is one issue that seems to concern Chinese social media users the most, it is not facial recognition nor their ‘Sesame score’: it is the topic of healthcare.

In December of 2017, a photo showing a crying mother kneeling down beside a toddler on the sidewalk in front of a Shanghai hospital went viral overnight. The moment was captured on camera by a reporter who was visiting Shanghai’s Children’s Hospital.

The photo of Guo Yinzhen and her son that went viral in China (image via NetEase, source: https://3g.163.com).

The mother, Guo Yinzhen, is a single parent who had traveled from a remote village to seek medical help for her 3-old-son, who was suffering from congenital hydrocephalus or ‘water on the brain.’ Already having traveled to the city multiple times and spending all her money on medical bills, Guo could not afford the additional 100.000 yuan (€ 12.600) for medical procedures needed to save her son’s life.

Guo’s story struck a chord with Chinese netizens, who continue to share the heartbreaking photo on social media to this day. It has become emblematic of China’s healthcare problems.

 

Crowded Hospitals and ‘Healthcare Disturbance’

 

The key to an adequate healthcare system, no matter where in the world, is that there is a right balancing in the “iron triangle” of efficiency/cost containment, high quality care, and patient access.[1] China, however, struggles with all three sides of this triangle.

Guo’s case is an extreme example, but many people in China dealing with less serious health issues and needing basic medical services also struggle to afford and access the healthcare they need.

Over 95% of people in China have health insurance, but people from different regions do not enjoy the same benefits and their out-of-pocket expenses can vary greatly. Uncovered medical costs can sometimes be catastrophic and simply unaffordable for patients and their families.

As more money flows are going to healthcare facilities in China’s cities, there is also the issue of varying levels of providers’ medical education and the overall healthcare quality, with the substantial majority of modern hospitals still existing in urban areas.

Easy access to the right kind of healthcare can be especially problematic for China’s rural population, as people often need to travel long distances and have to go through the lengthy process of registering and waiting for their doctor’s appointment, which sometimes requires them to stay in the city overnight.

For all of these reasons, China’s bigger public hospitals can get super crowded, sometimes resembling shopping malls on an end-of-season sales day. On social media, both patients and medical workers often complain about the stress brought about by the huge crowds and the shortage of doctors in hospitals across the country.

Perhaps it is no wonder that China even has a word to describe outbursts of violence between patients and doctors: ‘Yī nào’ (医闹, literally: “healthcare disturbance”).

Weibo user ‘Sunscreen’ complains about the crowds at Huashan Hospital.

One major problem within China’s healthcare conundrum is the lack of local family or primary-care doctors, which often makes bigger hospitals the first stop to any kind of medical treatment for Chinese patients.

The reasons for this issue are manifold. There is a general lack of trust in private and smaller local healthcare clinics, for example, and patients often choose to go directly to a bigger hospital to avoid making extra costs.

This makes it extra difficult for many community health care centers – that are already struggling – to make enough money and to retain qualified staff. In a society that is rapidly aging, the challenges facing China’s healthcare industry are only becoming more pressing.

 

A Doctor Today, Just an App Away

 

As China’s online environment is thriving, new innovative online apps are popping up on a daily basis. Some of these apps, that have found their ways into China’s most popular app rankings, are offering solutions to some of the country’s most pressing healthcare problems.

One of these apps is Ping’an Good Doctor (平安好医生), which was developed by health insurance provider Ping’an in 2015 and calls itself China’s “one-stop healthcare ecosystem.”

“Ping’an Good Doctor” promotional image by Ping’an.

Employing some 1000 medical staff in its in-house team, contracting over 5,200 external doctors, and collaborating with 3000 hospitals and thousands of pharmacy outlets across the country, the app is somewhat of an “online hospital.”

Through the app, users can look through an online database of medical professionals, order medicine at nearby pharmacies, get 24/7 online medical consultancy, search for information about both Western and Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc., but they can also use Ping’an Good Doctor as a fitness app to track their own health.

Screenshot of Ping’an app screen, by author.

When looking for a specific doctor for a one-on-one consult, the app first lets users select an area of expertise (e.g. dermatology or gynecology), and then offers a list of different specialists in various price categories.

Doctors from well-known hospitals, for example, or those with excellent ratings, have a one-time consultation fee of 100 yuan (€ 12,60). Other doctors can be consulted starting from 30 yuan (€3,70). All costs can be paid efficiently via online payment apps.

Doctors to pick from within the app’s various price categories.

Ping’an Good Doctor uses an AI-driven system to ask patients various questions about their symptoms and to automatically create a user’s medical record to save time. Based on the AI-generated record and the conversation with the patients – files such as photos can also be uploaded to the app -, the doctors can prescribe medicine or refer the patient to a hospital for an offline appointment if needed.

Ping’an recently announced that its number of registered users exceeded 300 million users, with 62 million monthly active users. Because the app keeps building on its AI-driven system, Ping’an Good Doctor can be expected to only become a ‘smarter’ smart health app the more popular it gets.

Although Ping’an is now leading within China’s medical app category, there are many other apps providing similar services, such as Chunyu Yisheng (春雨医生), Haodafu Online (好大夫在线), or DingXiang Doctor (丁香医生).

The emergence of these apps is just one of the many ways in which China’s digital developments, online media, and tech giants are impacting the healthcare industry, profoundly changing how patients receive healthcare information and access medical services now and in the future.

List of recommended medical apps in the Tencent app store.

In a way, China’s medical consultation apps fill the void in offline primary care. Patients who would otherwise turn to hospital care as their first stop can now  access medical consultations any time, any day, at a relatively low cost. Those who suffer from relatively harmless conditions could be diagnosed by a medical specialist via the app and get the medicine they need within a matter of minutes. With the growing popularity of these kinds of apps, many patients no longer need to visit a hospital at all.

Are smart health apps such as Ping’an Good Doctor the solution to China’s healthcare problems? No, they’re not. Struggling mums like Guo Yinzhen will not find the help they need there. But they do contribute to a more efficient healthcare environment where crowd flows in hospitals can be reduced, and patients do not need to spend a lot of time and money to stand in hour-long queues to get five minutes of their doctor’s time.

Although smart health apps could not help Guo Yinzhen and her son, social media apps could. As soon as their story went viral in late 2017, Shanghai Children’s Welfare Foundation Xiaoxingxin offered to cover medical treatments for the little boy, with a notable pediatric neurosurgeon operating the child. According to the latest updates, the boy’s situation was “looking good.”

Hopefully, the same holds true for the challenging sides of China’s healthcare industry.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

[1] Burns & Liu, 2017: 3-4.

References/Linked Sources

Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu. 2017. “Introduction.” In China’s Healthcare Industry: A System Perspective, Lawton Robert Burns and Gordon G. Liu (eds), pp-1-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Economist, 2017. “China needs many more primary-care doctors.” The Economist, May 11 https://www.economist.com/china/2017/05/11/china-needs-many-more-primary-care-doctors [20.10.19].

Zhou, Viola. 2018. “Does China Have Universal Healthcare? A Long (And Better) Answer.” Inkstone, Oct 10 https://www.inkstonenews.com/health/china-translated-does-china-have-universal-health-care/article/2167579

This text was first published by Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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