Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has a rich knowledge of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Its invested millions to add mobile robots to its warehouses to help fulfill online sales, which in 2015, for example, were greater than Amazon, eBay, and Walmart combined.
Alibaba is getting itself into commercial robotics with a new service robot called Alibaba Space Egg, which is designed to deliver items to hotel guests. Built by the company’s in-house consumer R&D house Alibaba A.I. Labs, the Alibaba Space Egg will have its first real-world test in October at a hotel in China.
Alibaba Space Egg is 3.3 feet tall and moves slowly at about 2.3 MPH. The robot maps its environment and features a suite of sensors to move around autonomously and avoid obstacles. It can open elevators and has facial recognition technology to properly ID hotel guests.
One area where the Alibaba Space Egg stands out from other hotel delivery robots, more on that in a moment, is that it integrates with Alibaba’s Tmall Genie smart speaker, which is similar to Amazon Echo, Google Home and Chinese smart speakers from Baidu, JD.com, Huawei and others. In mid-2017, Alibaba partnered with Marriott to install the Tmall Genie smart speakers in 100,000 hotel rooms. With Genie integrated into hotel rooms, guests can use voice commands to order items that will then be delivered by Space Egg.
“We are excited by this tremendous development that is helping us bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time that they expect. Alibaba A.I. Labs’ robot is the next step in the evolution towards smart hotels. In addition, it is solving pain points in the hotel sector, such as enhancing service efficiency, with our leading AI technologies,” says Lijuan Chen, General Manager of Alibaba A.I. Labs.
Space Egg is similar, however, to the hotel delivery robots we’ve seen from Savioke, which introduced its Relay robot in 2014. Relay is used by hotel brands including Aloft, Crowne Plaza, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hyatt Place, Residence Inn, Sheraton and Westin. Savioke has recently branched out into the logistics and healthcare markets. Aethon’s TUG is another direct competitor, and Panasonic started testing in early 2017 its Hospi delivery robot in hotels, too.
While the service robotics market is still young, it’s a growing market more companies are getting into. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the global service robotics market is expected to grow 20-25% from 2018 to 2020 with sales valued at $27 billion.
And Alibaba doesn’t want to miss out. After the trial, Alibaba A.I. Labs said it will determine whether it’s suitable for hospitals, restaurants and offices. The answer is yes, of course, as these environment are less dynamic than others and are already welcoming robots with open arms.
Rising Chinese Competition
Could Alibaba’s Space Egg be another piece in China’s puzzle to surpass the US in robotics by 2025 and AI by 2030? Perhaps. Space Egg is a direct competitor to other service robots. And Alibaba has deeper pockets and a further reach than the aforementioned companies.
A look at some recent moves by Alibaba, JD.com, and Tencent show how these Chinese powerhouses continue to spread their wings overseas. Alibaba is committing $15 billion over the next five years to build out a global logistics network. JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce company behind Alibaba, is also heavily investing in, developing and using AI and robotics. It has been testing mobile robots, delivery robots and drones since 2016.
In February 2018, JD raised $2.5 billion for JD Logistics, which became a stand-alone subsidiary in April 2017. JD reportedly plans to spin off this logistics business through a future IPO overseas. As of 2017, JD operated seven fulfillment centers and 405 warehouses, covering 2,830 counties and districts across China. It has also invested in logistics infrastructure in Southeast Asia and has a partnership with Japanese delivery firm Yamato Holdings.
Tencent announced earlier in 2018 its Robotics X laboratory in Shenzhen. Tencent, maker of the popular WeChat app, also has an AI lab in Seattle, as does Alibaba and Baidu. In May 2018, Tencent led UBTech’s $820 million Series C round. Tencent also invested in US robot maker Marble and Canadian robot developer Kindred Systems, which both specialize in logistics robots.
And this is just a look at service and logistics robots. China just announced is now cooperating with Japan on developing AI, self-driving cars and other technologies. China making moves is nothing new, but there’s now more reasons for US players to pay attention.