August 11, 2016      

Taiwan may not get as much notice for its robotics industry as Japan or China, but it is still working to be a leader in Asia. We’ve already explored how Taiwan’s private sector is leading the way with international partnerships. At the same time, Taiwan’s government has introduced plans to transform the country’s economy — with a big focus on robotics.

How is the government doing this, and why?

Last year, Taiwan’s government unveiled a plan called “Productivity 4.0” and earmarked over $1 billion (U.S.) to invest over nine years to transform sectors such as technology, machinery, and transportation.

It also wants to develop and create “smart factories” in the country. Through this plan, Taiwan wants to increase the “per capita productivity” of its manufacturing industries by 60 percent by 2024.

One of the leaders who want to transform Taiwan through technology is Premier Lin Chuan. In July, he announced a plan to develop the smart machinery industry. He wants to position the country as a global research and development hub and smart manufacturing hub.

Lin’s plan calls for strengthening cooperation among local governments, improving the partnership between industry and academia, and providing government assistance to Taiwanese companies to develop their smart machinery capabilities.

That last part is important.

It means that Taiwan’s government will actively provide resources to the private sector. At the same time, companies will be working with agencies, informing them of what they need, what their priorities are, and what challenges they are facing.

Taiwan's government wants smart industry, according to Premier Lin Chuan.

Taiwanese Premier Lin Chuan dons VR goggles as he encourages Taiwan’s industries to transform.

This can be viewed as a geopolitical strategy by Taipei to develop its global influence in robotics. Can this public-private cooperation affect how aggressive Taiwanese companies are overseas? Is this Taiwan’s way of competing with global giants like China and the U.S.?

In June, the premier unveiled an informal plan around technologies like robotics. Letting technology speak for itself, Premier Lin wore virtual reality goggles in parliament and spoke about the need for “Taiwan’s industries to transform.”

He said he wanted to turn the country in the “Silicon Valley of Asia,” as Taiwan is already focused on automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet.

If one of the top figures in Taiwan’s government wants to bring the country on par with Silicon Valley, are new government-backed incentives/strategies on the horizon to fuel robotics in the country (and attract talent from overseas)?

Researchers reflect Taiwan’s growing AI, robotics prowess

Taiwanese citizens are also advancing the country’s robotic “muscle.”

In March, Google’s DeepMind famously defeated a South Korean player in the Chinese game of “Go”. While Google’s artificial intelligence took credit for the achievement, one of the key architects of the software was Aja Huang, a Taiwanese AI expert. In 2010, he gained attention for developing an artificial intelligence program called “Erica” that won the Computer Olympiad in Japan.

In the same month of Alphabet Inc.’s win in Go, a Taiwanese entrepreneur named Chih-Han Yu was added to the World Economic Forum’s list of “Young Global Leaders.” He is the founder of Appier Inc., a Taipei-based marketing startup that has been working in the fields of self-driving cars and robotics.

Yu has a Ph.D. from Harvard University and gained fame for developing an AI system that tracked users “cross-screen behavior across multiple devices.”

Taiwan University's TAIDA won the first annual Robot Art competition.

TAIDA is an example of Taiwan’s strengths in robotics development.

In May, TAIDA, a robot from Taiwan University, won the first Robot Art competition. The contestants had to be able to mix their own colors, paint over certain parts, and ensure that the final art aligned with their initial “vision.”

As Taiwanese citizens and startups lead advancements in robotics, others are calling for the government to take a bigger lead in “Industry 4.0.”

“Taiwan can opt for a ‘high-quality, low-quantity’ strategy to achieve ‘smart factory’ objectives, including customization, zero inventory, and high added value,” said Luo Ren-Chuan, an electrical engineering professor at National Taiwan University. He is also an adviser to the country’s Productivity 4.0 plan.

“The first step for the government is to sort through and organize academic research results and establish a partnership between universities and businesses,” Luo told the Taipei Times.

Other experts noted that the Taiwanese government should recognize robotics’ potential and bring its level of investment up to the same level as that of other nations.

More on International Industrial Automation:

Will Taiwan’s government remake its economy?

Robotics is a key part of the plan to transform Taiwan’s economy, as Taiwan’s government perceives the beginning of a new era. Simply being a low-cost center for manufacturing is no longer enough in a changing Asia, so Taiwan is setting policies to pursue its geopolitical aims.

Careful robotics and AI investments in research and development and commercialization can help a smaller country like Taiwan resist being dominated by global companies like Japan’s SoftBank Group, China’s newly-acquired Kuka Robotics Corp., or the U.S.’s Boston Dynamics.

At the same time, industrial automation and other robotics give Taiwan’s government new tools to compete in foreign markets and grow its influence.

Today, robotics R&D in Taiwan is still scattered between the private and public sector, but this could change soon. As the robotics and AI plans of Taiwan’s government gain steam, the private sector is advancing, and the country could be “disruptive” as it finds its niche in the world.