Meet AlphaDog: Chinese tech company develops robo-dog that can see and hear its environment

The high-tech hound uses sensors and AI technology

It's whip fast, obeys commands and does not leave unpleasant surprises on the floor – meet AlphaDog, a robotic response to two of China's burgeoning loves: pets and technology.

The high-tech hound uses sensors and artificial intelligence technology to "hear" and "see" its environment – and can even be taken for walks.

It's really very similar to a real dog

Ma Jie, chief technology officer at Weilan

"It's really very similar to a real dog," says Ma Jie, chief technology officer at Weilan Intelligent Technology Corporation, the company behind the product.

The creators, in Nanjing, say their robot dog – which moves at a speed of almost 15 kilometres per hour and spins on the spot like an excited puppy – is the fastest on the market.

With four metal legs it is more stable than a real dog, Ma explains as one of his team swiftly kicks it to prove the point.

"It can predict the friction and height of the ground to adjust its height, adjust the stride frequency, and adapt to the environment," he said, as the robot slowly navigates going up a set of stairs.

This picture taken on April 2, 2021 shows a Weilan Intelligent Technology Corporation employee using his foot to demonstrate the stability of an AlphaDog quadruped robot at the company's workshop in Nanjing, China's Jiangsu province. It's whip fast, obeys commands and doesn't leave unpleasant surprises on the floor -- meet the AlphaDog, a robotic response to two of China's burgeoning loves: pets and technology. - TO GO WITH AFP STORY CHINA-TECHNOLOGY-ROBOTS-ECONOMY,FOCUS BY HELEN ROXBURGH AND QIAN YE / AFP / WANG ZHAO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY CHINA-TECHNOLOGY-ROBOTS-ECONOMY,FOCUS BY HELEN ROXBURGH AND QIAN YE
A Weilan Intelligent Technology Corporation employee uses his foot to demonstrate the stability of the AlphaDog. AFP

Its creators use 5G technology, super-fast internet speeds with immediate reaction times, to make the robot operate autonomously.

Ma studied reinforcement learning – the study of how to reinforce actions through reward or punishment – at the University of Oxford and says he used that knowledge to inform how the AI dog mimics canine habits.

In the first month of sales, more than 1,800 AlphaDogs trotted off the shelves, despite the hefty price tag of 16,000 yuan ($2,445).

"Orders are mostly from computer developers, tech geeks and also kids, who really seem to like it," said Ma.

As China seeks to upskill its workforce, Beijing has been making huge investments in robotics and AI.

Robots are already used to deliver parcels, serve in restaurants, offer information at stations and even take throat swabs for Covid-19 tests.

The Weilan workshop is staffed by young tech enthusiasts, filled with pencil-design sketches and a central obstacle route of stairs and slopes for the machines to clunk over in testing.

Developers there hope future uses of their four-legged friend could benefit the visually impaired.

"To help the disabled is an important developing direction for us," said Ma. "When the robot dog has the function of vision, hearing and dialogue, too, it can easily interact with disabled people, and lead them to the supermarket or the bus."

Future software updates will include the dog "barking" – and beyond that, even add human voices to allow conversations between pet and owner.

There is also a larger "enterprise" dog model, designed for industrial inspections of machinery or pipes.

The next generation of the AlphaDog in pet form could also introduce "personalities" to the dog's toolkit to make them even more canine-like, as well as extend its somewhat brief battery life.

Updated: April 8, 2021 06:09 PM

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