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Inside Shanghai’s robot bank: China opens world’s first human-free branch

In Others, Technology

Xiao Long, the latest employee at the Jiujiang Road branch of the China Construction Bank is never late for work. “Welcome to China Construction Bank,” she chirps to customers arriving at the Shanghai branch, flashing her white teeth. “What can I help you with today?”

Xiao Long, or “Little Dragon”, is not your typical employee – she’s a robot at China’s first fully automated, human-free bank branch.

As guardian of the bank, she talks to customers, takes bank cards and checks accounts (she comes complete with a PIN pad) and can answer basic questions. After a quick initial chat with Xiao Long, customers pass through electronic gates where their faces and ID cards are scanned. On future visits, facial recognition alone is enough to open the gates and call up customer information.

Inside, automated teller machines help with services such as account opening, money transfer and foreign exchange. A second robot waits inside the barriers, and there is a VR room and video-link should customers want to talk to a mortal.

A police patrol robot at Zhengzhou East railway station.

There is also a staggering number of security cameras. I counted eight in the lobby alone, and loitering for too long or pulling out a camera quickly produces a human security guard who has been hiding out of sight.

The bank is rather low on customers, who in the main appear rather ambivalent. One man in his 30s shrugs that he does most of his banking online anyway, and avoids coming into branches – though at least he didn’t have to queue.

Robot waiters, robot guards

Robots are handling more and more aspects of everyday life in Chinese cities. They have been deployed in train stations for security purposes; robot security guards at Zhengzhou East railway station are programmed to scan travellers’ faces and respond to common questions.

The chief executive of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com recently predicted that robots will eventually replace human workers in the retail industry, with China’s unmanned retail sector expected to triple in size to 65bn yuan (£7.5bn) by 2020, according to iResearch.

A robot waiter in Sanmenxia, Henan province.
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 A robot waiter in Sanmenxia, Henan province. Photograph: VCG via Getty Images

Robots are being used to cook – both in restaurants and industrial kitchens – and a video of an entirely automated dumpling factory went viral on Chinese social media last year.

Robot waiters have been a fad for a number of years, with restaurants keen to draw customers with novel experiences, as well as saving on staff costs. Robotic waiters can be frustratingly slow for hungry diners though. Most move along pre-programmed tracks, and for some restaurants they have proved more trouble than they’re worth.

But the rise of China’s robot industry is a core part of Beijing’s economic ambitions. Beijing’s Robotics Industry Development Plan is a five-year programme that targets the production of at least 100,000 industrial robots a year by 2020, partly to reboot the country’s ailing manufacturing sector.

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