China is striving to expand its technological dominance at the Beijing Olympics
China is striving to expand its technological dominance at the Beijing Olympics

China is striving to expand its technological dominance at the Beijing Olympics

An automatic basket tips frozen wonton in boiling water. Within a few minutes, the dough-wrapped pieces of pork are boiled, placed in a black plastic bowl and transported on a conveyor belt, untouched by human hands. Pink lights flash when your lunch order arrives at the counter.

The Robot Café inside the media center at Beijing Olympics has received worldwide coverage over the last few weeks. It provides good TV and eye-catching postings on social media.

There are cyber kettles and fryers and even a one-armed bartender. Unmanned servers slip over overhead tracks and lower meals with cable, e.g. tom Cruise dangling from the ceiling in “Mission Impossible”.

During all this mechanical flash, there may be an important political context.

The organizers say that their modernist food preparation is intended to limit human contact and thus inhibit the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, China has clearly made an effort to place gadgets in front of journalists on every trip.

Robots with flashing blue lights cross the aisles and infrared scanners show the ghostly, glowing shapes of everyone passing by. Sleeping cabins, controlled by mobile phone app, allow to sleep in sleep on long working days. Clayton Dube, director of the US-China Institute at USCsuspects that the host country is trying to portray itself as “the highest of high-tech.”

“China wants to convey that it is not just a manufacturing superpower, the world’s so-called workshop,” Dube said. “They also want to be a center for innovation.”

These technical holdings occasionally have drawbacks. In the cafeteria, the wait for the space age wonton lasts half an hour or longer. Two guys in aprons and masks at the next counter can cook a bowl of noodles with stewed pork in less than five minutes.


A robot arm drops french fries in a paper cup in the media dining hall in Beijing.

(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

During his speech at the opening ceremony, the chairman of the local organizing committee spoke about the challenge of holding an international sports competition during a pandemic.

“As we continue to live under the influence of COVID-19,” Cai Qi told a stadium whose capacity was significantly limited by restrictions, “the safety and health of all game participants remains our top priority.”

Some countermeasures in Beijing – masks, social distancing, hand washing – are decidedly low-tech.

But the use of robots within the “closed-loop system” has been pervasive. Blocky and white, standing around his chest high, vending machines patrolling venues and media hotels. They possess the ability to take elevators themselves.

According to a government website, various types of robots can spray disinfectant mist into the air, shine bactericidal ultraviolet light and in some cases detect people not wearing masks and ask them to put one on. The Chinese state ministry says some of its unmanned workers spray sprayed mist on the ground and disinfect as much as 387 square feet per minute.

Coverage of the Beijing Olympics

Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia, notes this COVID spread primarily through the air, making masks, HEPA filters and ventilation systems the most effective countermeasures.

“Disinfecting surfaces for COVID is largely theatrical, though cleaner surfaces are generally better, and this can affect other bacteria,” Binney said in an email.

When it comes to dealing with coronavirus, Chinese officials have reason to want to appear as diligent as possible to the rest of the world as the spread of the virus originates from their country.

After a wave of nationwide restrictions in preparation for the Games, including rapid closures of businesses, office buildings and entire communities, the Communist Party may also want to send a message to its own people.

“What if some kind of outburst is triggered internally by the Olympics?” asks Susan Brownell, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor specializing in Chinese sports culture. “The party and its leadership are extremely sensitive to public opinion.”

Officials have placed infrared stations throughout the closed loop, showing not only images but body temperature. A health worker pulls everyone aside, recording over 99.1 degrees and checking them again using a standard thermometer.

A thermal imaging system controls the body temperatures of people entering the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

A thermal imaging system controls the body temperatures of people entering the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

There is good science behind these stations, but they are also photogenic with bright, purple colors shown on TV screens on big screens.

Oddly enough, the Olympic health monitoring system is to some extent dependent on self-reporting. In addition to attending daily throat tests, everyone at the games must take their own temperature and enter the result in a mobile phone app.

On a recent bus trip, a group of journalists joked about the temperatures they would find and type into their phones that morning.


Not all the technology on Beijing games is pandemic-related.

More than a dozen futuristic “Sleep rest cabins” lie along a wide corridor by the media center, where hundreds of journalists work from morning until late at night.

Bai Wenshuo is working on his laptop in a sleeping cabin.

Bai Wenshuo is working on his laptop in a sleeping cabin. The cabins, which have a bed and a work desk, are located along a hallway at the Olympic Media Center in Beijing.

(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

Anyone who needs a power nap can scan a QR code to unlock the door and step into a compact room with a smart bed that can be adjusted – head up, feet up – with the remote control. There are massage options and disposable sheets in a trash can on the wall.

As with other innovations here, these rooms come with a caveat: Their front walls are exclusively glass. This means that people walking down the aisle can look inside, which they often do. That means they can stop and take pictures. They do too.

Again, the cabins have been a favorite topic of international media in the hunt for quirky news beyond the usual sports.

Watching the Olympics from a distance, Dube reiterates the idea that Chinese officials might be trying to reach their own. State-run television has not only shown the same robots seen around the world, he says, but also “video of foreigners taking video” of the cafeteria.

“By showing these things,” he said, “the government is proving, ‘Look, we’re using technology to make the Olympics run better.” “

If this technology is at least partially visible, the Winter Games would not be unique. Dube talks about what he’s witnessed in Los Angeles over the past few weeks.

“It’s not just China’s leaders who are eager to leave visitors with a good impression,” he said. “With super Bowl … Crews have collected rubbish and painted over graffiti along 405.

Trying to make a good impression, the professor suggests, can be a universal instinct.

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