The world’s first mass-produced humanoid robot? China’s start-up Fourier Intelligence envisions bipedal robots with AI brains

By | August 13, 2023

When Fourier Intelligence unveiled its lanky, jet-black humanoid robot GR-1 at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai in July, it instantly stole the show.

While the global tech community has been fixated on artificial intelligence (AI) software since the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November, the Chinese-made GR-1 – said to be able to walk on two legs at a speed of 5km per hour while carrying a 50kg load – reminded people of the potential of bipedal robots, which are being pursued by global companies from Tesla to Xiaomi.

For Fourier, a Shanghai-based start-up, the GR-1 was an unlikely triumph.

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“It’s an unprecedented attempt by us – we had almost no reference when it came to the technology,” said Alex Gu, founder and CEO of Fourier, in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post in the Chinese financial capital.

Fourier’s focus has not always been on humanoid robots. Named after the 19th century French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, the company was originally established in 2015 in Shanghai’s technology hub Zhangjiang with the aim of developing rehabilitation robotics.

The company’s current products include a smart exercise bike, a wireless robotic glove and a range of computer-controlled things that help users restore movement in their arms and legs.

But like many of his peers, 42-year-old Gu, a mechanical engineering graduate from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, had long dreamed of creating his own humanoid robot.

So in 2019, after Fourier brought its intelligent rehabilitation devices to hundreds of hospitals and medical centers in over 10 countries and established itself in the industry, Gu decided it was time to start a new venture.

At that time, few companies in the world had successfully launched a humanoid robot due to the high technological barrier and development costs. In the US, there were a handful of projects, including Atlas by Boston Dynamics, the company known for its robot dog Spot, and Digit by Agility Robotics.

In China, most companies chose to dedicate their efforts to lightweight products such as four-legged robots. Gu thought he could do better.

“Many technologies used in rehabilitation robots are essentially applicable to humanoid robots,” Gu said. “Humanoid robots require very good motors that are both powerful and light, and we are able to develop them ourselves.”

Alex Gu, Founder and CEO of Fourier Intelligence. Photo: Handout alt=Alex Gu, Founder and CEO of Fourier Intelligence. Photo: Handout>

The GR-1 was born in a small laboratory on the first floor of the Fourier headquarters, where a group of engineers were busy refining and testing the robot when this reporter visited last month. The team had a major breakthrough in 2022 – three years after the start of the project – when they managed to get the 1.65 meter tall robot to stand up on both legs and walk.

“When we saw it stand up for the first time, detached and walk around by itself, it was a great encouragement to all our engineers,” Gu said. “It felt like raising a newborn baby.”

Fourier later posted an online video of the walking GR-1 that drew compliments from many viewers, but also plenty of skepticism.

“Some overseas viewers said the video was computer-generated,” Gu said. “I understand that the field is still at an early stage and that people will have different opinions, just as some argued 20 years ago whether electric cars would be able to hit the roads.”

Beyond technical challenges, researchers and robotics experts have warned that companies still face massive difficulties in commercializing humanoid robots in the wider consumer market.

“[Humanoid robots] mostly live in the labs now and are extremely expensive,” said Zhang Xiaorong, director of Chinese research institute Shendu Technology. “A relatively high-quality machine can cost millions of yuan.”

These problems have not stopped companies from trying.

Lei Jun, founder of Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi, in August 2022 showed the company’s first humanoid robot CyberOne on stage, which was seen to be able to walk but not much else.

Less than two months later, Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire founder, unveiled a prototype of his long-awaited Optimus robot during the company’s AI Day. It walked and danced live on stage. The audience was also shown a video of the robot performing tasks such as carrying a box and moving metal rods.

Musk said at the WAIC conference last month that Optimus was not intended to “have great intelligence” but to help people with “boring, repetitive or dangerous tasks”.

Gu said he shared similar visions with Musk, but added that robots “can also become very good friends of humans by providing emotional value”.

While current humanoid robots still have “huge gaps with humans in both movement and cognitive abilities,” the development of large-scale language models (LLM) — the type of software that supports AI chatbots like ChatGPT — could be “epoch-changing,” Gu said. .

“LLMs will give robots the ability of logical reasoning, making them much more human-like,” Gu said.

A Fourier Intelligence engineer tests the self-balancing capabilities of the company’s humanoid robot. Photo: Handout alt=A Fourier Intelligence engineer tests the self-balancing ability of the company’s humanoid robot. Photo: Handout>

While Gu emphasized that Fourier will focus on developing the hardware that makes up the “body” of the robots and let AI developers work on the “brain,” Fourier co-founder and chief strategy officer Zen Koh said a few AI companies had already reached looking for potential collaboration in LLMs.

“We hope to work with all the majors and … as a system, be open,” Koh said.

The GR-1 robot has already been delivered in small quantities to some universities and AI companies for research and development, according to Gu. He plans to begin mass production by the end of the year and deliver thousands of units by 2024.

Musk also claimed last year that production could start in 2023.

Gu expects Fourier’s humanoid robots, which he said have great potential in various scenarios including elderly care, education and hospitality, to generate more revenue than their rehabilitation robots in the next three to five years.

Still, there is a long way to go before humanoid robots become part of our daily lives, he said.

“Don’t expect a miracle in a year or so – even for Tesla, we have to give them time [to achieve mass production of humanoid robots]Gu said.

“But also don’t underestimate the possibility that this thing could become part of people’s family lives in five or 10 years.”

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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