His great-grandfather traveled on foot, his grandpa used an ox-drawn cart and his father used a bicycle, but Wu Yulu, 48, has found a new way to travel. Sitting back in his rickshaw, Mr Wu is pulled around by a robot. This is the story of a remarkable Chinese farmer who has replaced the crops in his yard with a family of robots programmed to call him “daddy.”
Fifty years ago, Mawu, a small village outside Beijing, was a thriving agricultural community; today it is little more than a distant neighborhood of a giant metropolis. From birth Wu Yulu was destined to work on the land, but describes himself as a lousy farmer: “I was only ever interested in observing the world and trying to understand how it works. Since I was a child I’ve been watching people and wondering how they are able to walk on two legs.”
Wu belongs to a new breed of creative famers without a formal education who invent extraordinary machines – China’s “peasant da Vincis,” as they have been called. Still, he says, “my family can’t understand why I make robots. I make no money with them and the cost of production is very high.”
In building the 50 robots (Wu One to Wu 50), Wu Yulu has acquired debts of over 70,000 yuan (US$12,300), accidentally splashed acid on his face, gained a reputation as a crackpot and almost destroyed his marriage to the long-suffering Dong Shuyan. “In June 1999, I started a fire that burned down my house,” he says. “My wife cried and said, ‘I’m leaving you. I told you not to make robots but you didn’t listen.’ But everything was OK a few days later when I said I would build her a robot servant.
Since I was a child I’ve been watching people and wondering how they are able to walk on two legs.
Wu Yulu, 48, Beijing, China
“My first robot was built in 1986 and since then I have kept building them to do the things I need. Some can pull rickshaws, some play erhu, and others light cigarettes. When I built Wu Lao 32, the rickshaw robot, in the 1990s I did it because I didn’t want to walk a whole day to get to Beijing like my parents did. I needed to move but I couldn’t afford a car, so I decided to make my own transport – a robot that could take my wife and me to buy vegetables.”
Powered by an electric motor, Wu Lao 32 raises its legs like a human being. With one full charge, costing one yuan (US$0.15), it can walk for six hours, at 30 to 40 steps per minute. With Wu Lao 32, Wu Yulu also took the notion of humanizing his robots one step further: “I want them all to move their eyes and ears like humans, so I make them eyes from Ping-Pong balls and mouths from sponges.”
Chinese rickshaws from the Shang to the Wu dynasties:
Dating from the Shang Dynasty (1760–1046BC) and pulled by two or four horses, these are the first recorded chariots in China. These vehicles were so significant to Shang royalty that they would often be buried alongside their owners.
Before slavery was abolished in China in 1910, it was cheaper to use a slave to pull a rickshaw than it was to use a horse. Human-powered rickshaws were finally banned, by the Communists, in 1949.
For short hops (rides less than 10km) cycle rickshaws were hugely popular in China throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today, due to economic growth and the greater availability of motorbikes, cycle rickshaws have now all but disappeared from China’s major cities.
In a moment largely ignored by the automobile industry, Wu Yulu declared the beginning of a new era of Chinese mobility. The Wu Lao 32 rickshaw robot has a 60-centimeter stride and walks at a steady three kilometers an hour step-by-step towards the future.