Xiaomi Builds a Humanoid Robot for Some Reason

CyberOne is a new biped from China, but why does it exist?

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

A black and white humanoid robot lies face down on dirt after appearing to have just fallen

Xiaomi, a large Chinese consumer-electronics manufacturer, has introduced a full-size bipedal humanoid robot called CyberOne. It’s 177 centimeters in height and weighs 52 kilograms, and it comes with 21 degrees of freedom, with “a curved OLED module to display real-time interactive information.” Nifty! So, uh, its actual purpose is...what exactly?

Xiaomi’s intro-to-CyberOne video, above, leans on a pratfall gag that I’m 100 percent sure the robot can do. But as far as I can tell, if it in fact fell as part of its actual operations, it would shatter into a bajillion pieces with that fancy faceplate and all.

There is otherwise really not that much going on in this video. I got briefly excited when it walked up to that fallen tree, only to be disappointed when the feature it was advertising turned out to be “obstacle avoidance” and not “climbs nimbly over fallen trees.” I’m also not taking the rain resistance or overnight (?) endurance literally.

If you read Xiaomi’s press release closely, they’re pretty up front—CyberOne itself is probably not intended to be all that useful.

In all, then, it appears to be a slick-looking bipedal robot that can walk pretty well without falling over, or at least without falling over on camera. Xiaomi says that CyberOne also has a vision system that can “create three-dimensional virtual reconstructions of the real world,” as well as environmental and emotion classification, although you don’t need a humanoid form factor for any of that. But why the heck is Xiaomi bothering with any of this?

We’re at the point where a tech company with plenty of resources can, with a moderate amount of commitment, design and build a humanoid robot. While I’m not suggesting that doing so is easy, I am suggesting that doing so with a practical and attainable goal is still very, very hard. Building humanoid robots that are robust and real-world useful is not something that’s been cracked yet, even by companies with far more experience than Xiaomi. So why are we seeing this happen?

I suspect that for some companies, it’s a means of attracting and retaining engineering talent while also having something fancy and high-tech looking to trot out on stage. But if you read through the press release, Xiaomi is actually pretty honest about CyberOne:

The development of CyberOne is a symbol of Xiaomi’s dedication to incubate a technological ecosystem centered in a single point, and connect it with the world in ways never seen before. Spanning from smartphones, wearable devices and smart homes, to smart manufacturing, smart electric vehicle and bionic robots, Xiaomi has been constantly exploring and extending its innovations in various scenarios so as to better connect people and the world, eventually building an ever-evolving Xiaomi Technology Ecosphere.

CyberOne's research and development process combined cutting-edge technologies from a variety of sectors, including bionic perception and cognition, biomechatronics, artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, and visual navigation. These technological breakthroughs are also expected to give birth to more application scenarios in other fields, such as industrial robots with improved mechanical performance, companion robots with emotion recognition, and public-service robots powered by big data and cloud computing. CyberOne's technology will also be applied to more and more Xiaomi products in the future.

If you read these two paragraphs closely, a couple of things jump out: namely, that “CyberOne is a symbol,” its development is “expected to give birth to more application scenarios in other fields,” and that “CyberOne’s technology will also be applied to more and more Xiaomi products in the future.” To me, this is Xiaomi being very up front with an acknowledgment that CyberOne itself is probably not intended to be all that useful. It’s not a first step toward any practical applications but rather a way of exploring possibilities with technology that may have useful applications elsewhere, which seems perfectly reasonable.

Any way you look at it, more robots is great, and more clever people working on robots is also great. And as long as companies like Xiaomi are honest about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, both in terms of present capabilities and realistic future potential, bring on the slick-looking humanoids!

The Conversation (4)
Fabian Lamaestra
Fabian Lamaestra30 Aug, 2022

Wow, this article seems like a hit peace against Xiaomi. AT LEAST THEY HAVE something to show which is more than we can say for dozens of other companies skating by with their incremental-fake-bots displayed at CES every year.

Sometimes, you just have to DO IT and see what happens. Sometimes there is NO PURPOSE, aside from moving the needle, even if a little bit. Plus, aside from BD and CASSIE, most of the other biped robots are still trash after DECADES of work, so this provides fresh minds to do the work.

Where do we think Boston Dynamics started from? It has taken them over a DECADE to get to their fancy SPOT and ATLAS systems.

Michael Foegelle
Michael Foegelle17 Aug, 2022

Sadly, the whole video is something of a rip-off of Forest Gump, both with the "almost" identical music and all the long highway shots. Is it a homage or just another example of not caring about intellectual property rights?

Peter Adamczyk
Peter Adamczyk16 Aug, 2022

It's most unfortunate that there was only one living thing in the video, and the robot killed it. :-(