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Russia's Kalashnikov branches out from rifles to robots and e-cars
Moscow (AFP) Aug 29, 2018

Robot teachers invade Chinese kindergartens
Beijing (AFP) Aug 29, 2018 - The Chinese kindergarten children giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.

Just under 60 centimetres (two feet) high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.

Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its inbuilt cameras doubling up both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.

In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko's creators hope, join the ranks of educators.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert -- by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot -- part storytelling and part problem-solving.

Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.

"Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn," said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

"When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it," she added.

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its "Made in China 2025" plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country's first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world's top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

The service robot market -- which includes devices ranging from specialised medical equipment to automated vacuum cleaners -- is estimated to be worth $1.32 billion last year.

It is expected to grow to $4.9 billion by 2022, said market research firm Research In China.

Last week, Beijing hosted the World Robot Conference, featuring machines that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and wow audiences with their musical skills.

- Robocompanion -

Last year, a group of monks in Beijing created a two-foot-high robot monk dispensing mantras and advice to attaining nirvana.

The iPal -- a companion of sorts for children -- is the latest humanoid robot to be marketed for family use, following in the footsteps of the diminutive, wisecracking "Pepper" companion released by Japan's SoftBank in 2015.

But Xie Yi, principal of the kindergarten where Keeko has been put on trial, believes that it will be a long while before robots can completely replace humans in the classroom.

"To teach you must be able to interact, have a human touch, eye contact and facial expressions. These are the things that make an education," Xie said.

"It's not just the language or the content, it's everything."

She said the Keeko robots, which cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500), or about the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher, may have some advantages over a flesh-and-blood educator.

"The best thing about robots? They're more stable (than humans)," she said with a laugh.

A recent pledge by Kalashnikov to compete with Elon Musk's Tesla with a Russian retro "electric supercar" drew chuckles, but the legendary gun producer has long been trying to branch out into products from drones to yachts.

The remarkable transformation by the manufacturer most famous for the AK-47 automatic rifle is without precedent in its 200-year history.

Kalashnikov produces 95 percent of all Russian-made light arms and exports to some 27 countries.

The rifle, designed by the brand's namesake Mikhail Kalashnikov just after World War II and described by the company as "the greatest weapon of the 20th century", is now in its fifth generation.

Visitors to the Kalashnikov stand at a defence trade fair outside Moscow last week were therefore surprised when they came across the pale-blue prototype of the CV-1 electric car, based on a 1970s-era Soviet hatchback, standing next to a display of rifles.

Founded in Izhevsk (1,300 kilometres east of Moscow) in 1807, the Izhmash factory has seen a series of upheavals since 2013, when Russia's state corporation RosTec, the controlling holding, merged it with a nearby pistol maker Izhmekh, naming the new company Kalashnikov Concern.

Prior to the merger, the factory looked like it would meet a typical fate of many other Soviet-era industrial titans: in 2012 Mikhail Kalashnikov and other veteran employees lamented falling production figures, bad management and low salaries.

- Out of oblivion -

After the arrival of private shareholders in 2014, the company launched new models of assault and hunting rifles, handguns and other types of small arms, along with an aggressive re-branding campaign that included introduction of a clothing line and accessories including caps and umbrellas.

Just a few years later, these efforts seemingly paid off: in January 2017 the company went on a hiring spree, increasing its workforce by 30 percent to meet the rising export demand.

Following the introduction of Western sanctions against it, Kalashnikov Concern changed a new subsidiary that was meant to work with the US market into a separate company called Kalashnikov USA.

In February 2017, the Russian state became a minority shareholder after Rostec sold a large stake to Kalashnikov's managing director Alexei Krivoruchko.

In a shift for Russia's defence industry, Rostec wants civilian merchandise to increase to 50 percent of its overall output by 2025.

- 'Is this a gag?' -

Though its CV-1 electric car prototype may never end up on the production line, it is a step into a growing sector which is still in its infancy in Russia.

This summer, Kalashnikov provided 30 electric motorcycles and three-wheelers to the Russian police during the World Cup.

"Next year we will launch sales of our first electric motorbike," Vladimir Dmitriev, who took the post of director after Krivoruchko went to work at the defence ministry, said at the Moscow region defence fair last week.

"We are talking about electric mobility because we understand that sooner or later the engine is going to disappear," said Olga Boitsova, the commercial director for the company's civilian products.

In 2018-2019, Kalashnikov is set to start exporting electric cars and motorcycles to Saudi Arabia.

Standing next to the vintage-looking CV-1 at the fair, 27-year old student Dmitry Rodionov said it looked "funny" while jovial sexagenarian Yelena Razhina was hopeful that it would be "as reliable as the Kalashnikov rifle and conquer the world."

Others were more sceptical and mockery proliferated Russian social networks. "Is this a gag?" asked the website MoteurNature.com dedicated to environmentally friendly transport.

Sarcastic jokes also targeted Kalashnikov's other product, a bipedal robot prototype nicknamed "Igorek" or "Little Igor" who was designed to aid soldiers in hostile environments and was also presented at the fair.

Countless online memes compared the robot to designs that were popular in 1980s science-fiction films.



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Samsung to invest billions in new tech to drive fresh growth
Seoul (AFP) Aug 8, 2018
South Korea's Samsung Group on Wednesday said it would invest $22 billion over the next three years in cutting-edge technology including artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and biopharmaceuticals, as it searches for ways to drive future growth. The investment will be primarily led by Samsung Electronics, the world's biggest maker of memory chips, which has faced a string of setbacks in recent years, including a fall in smartphone sales and a corruption scandal that saw its vice-chairman Lee J ... read more

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