Back in 2008, Chinese entrepreneur Zhou Jian did not know much about robots. At a technology fair in Japan that year, he saw Honda’s ASIMO for the first time. Born in 2000 at 1.3 m (4 ft 3″) tall weighing 54 kg (119 lb), ASIMO is one of the world’s most recognizable humanoid robots. The name ASIMO stands for “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility” with the aim to help people in various situations of need, such as the elderly and disaster response.

Captivated, Zhou imagined a world in which humanoid robots were commonplace; they could be helpers, companions, educators, or entertainers. At the time, however, humanoid robots were largely unaffordable for the mass market. ASIMO was not up for sale and renting it would cost as much as $150,000 a month. SoftBank’s 1.2-m (3 ft 11″) tall day-to-day companion Pepper costs at least $25,000 and its  58-cm (1 ft 10″) tall Nao is available for commercial purchase at around $8,000 per unit.

When Zhou returned to Shenzhen, China’s southern city dubbed the world’s hardware haven, he decided to build his own humanoid robots geared for mass consumer adoption. His company, UBTECH (pronounced “you-bee tech”), would eventually grow into a robotic unicorn selling products to households around the world a few years later.

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Rita Liao

Telling the uncommon China stories through tech. I can be reached at ritacyliao [at] gmail [dot] com.