Tencent, the tech titan behind China’s biggest social networking and chat platform, WeChat, is about to bring its AI research to life by opening a robotics lab in the country’s center of manufacturing, Shenzhen. The move, announced at an AI event yesterday, will see the company explore an exciting new technological frontier that potentially could have a big payoff.

Why robots? Tencent is already research many kinds of AI algorithms, and even has a rival to DeepMind’s Go-playing program AlphaGo, called Fine Art. But it’s more difficult to have AI software control systems that operate in the messy real world. The challenge of interacting with real objects can also feed back into AI research on vision and language. 

Factory reset: Robots cannot currently do the kind manufacturing work performed by low-wage workers in Shenzhen, like putting together electronics components. With those wages rising rapidly in China, though, there is a desire for robots to take on more tasks, and the new lab will be ideally positioned to help with this effort. 

Rising power: Chinese companies are ramping up their AI research at a dizzying pace. Tencent already has two research labs focused on AI, and the company has been publishing AI research at major conferences. China’s other two tech giants, Alibaba and Baidu, are also now major forces in AI research. The US had better take notice.