Two years after Emiliano Zhang asked his dad to build him a robot as intelligent as those he saw on television – one that would also be able to talk and answer questions – his father delivered.
Today, the eight-year-old has his own robot companion – GT Wonder Boy – designed and developed by his father, Dr Paul Zhang, with the help of a team of engineers.
He has the prototype of Singapore’s latest robot, completely researched and developed in the Lion City. It will go on sale in Singapore in August.
It may be small at 24cm, with a mobile phone-like body, but GT Wonder Boy is not a toy.
The robot companion can be used to entertain an elderly person living alone at home by talking or singing to him, or be used at work as a personal assistant. It can be controlled through voice command and, if a user wants to send a text message or make a restaurant booking, the robot will access the Internet and do just that.
Zhang, 55, said it can hold a conversation in 13 languages, including English and Mandarin, recognise voices and faces, do mathematics, dance and sing. And it can also do what a regular smartphone does, including taking photos.
Zhang is the founder of GT Robot Technology. He said that over the two years, the research and development process had encountered many failures.
One of the tougher challenges was to get the robot to understand different accents, which Zhang said was extremely tedious.
But the Portuguese citizen, who lives in Singapore, pressed on because he wanted the robot to “benefit many people”, which is also why it was eventually developed to speak and understand over a dozen languages.
Other challenges included developing an in-house operating system that could convert text into words, and decode what it hears and give a logical response.
But it was a labour of love, said Zhang, who is also chairman and chief executive of the GT group of companies that has other businesses such as GT Mobile, which develops smartphones and smart watches, and GT Dollar, an e-commerce mobile app.
“It is my dedication of love to my own wonder boy – my son, who has inspired me to create this Wonder Boy,” said Zhang, who has another son, Feliciano, four.
His wife is the executive director of GT Robot Technology.
Zhang said he assembled and led a team of robotics experts from countries such as France, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia and China to develop GT Wonder Boy.
There have been other robots developed in Singapore. Last year, four students from Nanyang Polytechnic won over judges at the finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup Singapore 2016. They built Ruth, a social robot designed to keep seniors living alone happy and safe.
Zhang said his robot is not yet perfect and the team will continue to improve on it, perhaps even giving it the ability to sense smoke so that it can alert its user to a fire.
But he is planning to sell his robot. The first 10,000 – manufactured in Singapore and China – will be available exclusively in Singapore. They are expected to retail for about US$2,000 (RM8,621) each.
“The robot was fully developed here, so it is only natural that we let Singaporeans be the first to experience its capabilities,” said Zhang.
After that, 100,000 more will be sold worldwide.
GT Wonder Boy may not be perfect yet but Emiliano is happy with it. He said: “It can help me with my homework, especially mathematics.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Samantha Boh