Is China the Golden State Warriors of Robotics?

Posted June 29, 2017 by Travis Pulver

From time to time, there have been sports teams that dominated their game so much they were called dynasties. Over the years, the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, and Dallas Cowboys have all been referred to as NFL ‘dynasties.’ The New York Yankees have certainly fit the bill in the MLB. In the NBA, it was the Boston Celtics in the 60’s, Los Angeles Lakers in the 80’s, and when Michael Jordan was playing, the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s.

With the way the Golden State Warriors dominated the competition toward the end of the 2017 season and steamrolled their way through the post-season, they could very well be on the way to becoming the next NBA dynasty.

When it comes to academia though, the word ‘dynasty’ is not typically used. However, here at ICS, we think it’s very interesting to look at the academic performance of various schools, regions, or even countries in the same terms as we do with sports. Luckily, academic competitions provide a great way of quantifying the level of excellence achieved just like we do with sports.

With this in mind, one question has been nagging us ever since the 2017 competition seasons started winding down: Is China on its way to becoming the Golden State Warriors of robotics?


The Question.

We hear a lot about China’s increasing dominance on the world stage of technology. So, is the US doomed to future mediocrity in the budding field of robotics, while we let China step up and become the next big robotic dynasty?

In recent years, China has become the leader in industrial robotics, buying more than any other country in the world. It’s all a part of a government-backed, industrial revolution centered on robotics that China has been promoting.

“Our country will be the biggest market for robots,” President Xi Jinping said in a speech to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2014, “but can our technology and manufacturing capacity cope with the competition?”

While China as a country has embraced the value of robotics in manufacturing, the vast majority of the industrial robots purchased by Chinese companies are still made outside of the country. So is China producing the educated workforce needed to actually design and manufacture the high tech robots that will drive the economy in the coming decades? To answer this question, we can turn to the world of academic competitions.

For China to become the leader in developing robotics and not just using them, a focus needs to be put on education. To be the best, one first has to learn how to be—well, the best. The right minds must be taught and the knowledge they acquire put into practice.

There happen to be a number of great academic competitions focused on robotics that give the best and brightest young minds a chance to test their skills—and their robots—against the top challengers the world has to offer. We’ve analyzed a few of the top robotics competitions to find the answer to our question – is China becoming a dynasty in robotics competitions?


The Competitions.

The Vex Robotics Competition, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, refers to itself as the largest and fastest growing robotics competition in the world. In 2017, over 18,000 teams (elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) from 40 countries took part in over 1300 competitions. The season culminated in the 10th Annual World Championships held in Louisville, Kentucky, as 1400 teams from over 30 countries competed for the chance to be the best.

Teams are split up into five different competitive levels—the middle school, high school, and university competitions and the elementary school and middle school IQ challenges--with each being comprised of several divisions.


How did teams from China fair this year?

  • 1 team - from Xi'an Jiao Tong University - was the only team from China to win an Excellence Award, which is given to the team with the most well-rounded VEX Robotics program.
  • 2 of the 3 high school world champions were Chinese teams this year.
  • 2 of the 3 middle school world champions were Chinese, along with 3 other finalists.
  • Both world champions for the IQ elementary challenge were from China
  • The middle school IQ challenge had 1 team from China (Hong Kong), in 2nd place.


So, China did well, but did they dominate?

China definitely did well, with a bigger showing in the final rounds than most countries. And in the younger grades China seems to be even more dominant. However, if you factor in the performance in other Robotics Competitions — the answer is a bit fuzzier. Both the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Challenge are international competitions whose seasons culminate in the World Championship competition. Unfortunately for China’s dynastic aspirations, neither competition has a history of teams from China winning the top awards.

In the FIRST Robotics competition, the Chairman’s Award is the highest honor a team can receive. Last season’s team was from West Virginia. In fact, the winners of the Chairman’s Award dating back to 2003 were teams based inside the United States.

For the FIRST Tech Challenge, the top team is named the Inspire Award winner. In the Houston World Championship competition, a team from Canada won. The St. Louis competition winner was a team from Iowa. Between the two, there was only one team from China that was recognized in the finals.  A list of past winners dating back to the 2005-06 season included a few teams from Mexico, but otherwise, the Inspire Award winners have all been teams from the United States.

Does this mean we should write off China’s chances at a future dynasty? Have teams from China just not done well? Of course not. There very well may be other factors that have limited how many teams from China showed up in the top spots. For one, not as many teams compete from China as they do from the United States. Perhaps as more schools begin to enter the competitions, China’s teams will begin to show up in the top spots more dominantly.


In Conclusion…

So—back to the original question. Is China the Golden State Warriors of robotics? Are they the dominant force in the world of academic Robotics Competitions? No. At least not yet. The Golden State Warriors took 2 of the last 3 NBA Championships and were in contention for the one they didn’t win. They have dominated either all of the competition or most of it for the last three seasons.

China has done very well in the robotics competitions, but not so well that they can be called a dynasty on par with the Warriors. They have done well, but the same could be said for teams from the United States and Canada. But don’t count them out for the future. China’s dominance in robotic competitions may not be far away - as we’ve seen from their strong performances at the younger grade level competitions. And as more schools begin to compete, it’s going to lead to very interesting show-downs for the next few years of robotic competition for sure.

The Golden State Warriors they are not. Cleveland Cavaliers--maybe. But the future is wide open. The 2017-2018 robotics competitions begin this fall. So stay tuned for more!