VLAdivostok, Russia – To see Russia’s ambitions in its own version of Silicon Valley, head about 5,600 miles east of Moscow, climb across the hills of Vladivostok, then cross a bridge from the mainland to Russky Island. Here – a bridgehead on the edge of the Pacific Ocean – the Kremlin hopes to create a center for robotics and artificial intelligence innovation with the aim of boosting Russia’s ability to compete with the United States and Asia.
A new name has been proposed for the area: “Cyborg Island”.
“We have a dream,” said Artur Bektimirov, a neurosurgeon, who has partnered with high-tech prosthetic developer Motorica, which has some operations on Russky Island and plans to expand its presence. Bektimirov hopes Motorica will be the first in the technology boom out there.
So did Russian President Vladimir Putin. For years, Putin has stressed the country’s need to keep pace with the field of artificial intelligence. In 2017, Putin, speaking to a group of students, said that “whoever becomes a leader in this field will become the ruler of the world.” At an artificial intelligence conference late last year, he warned, “History knows many cases where large global corporations and even nations literally slept through a technological breakthrough and swept the historical stage overnight.”
But Russia struggled to be an heir to the Soviet Union’s vast legacy of innovation during the Cold War’s arms and space races. Foreign investors are worried about Western sanctions. And many young Russians are leaving for better-paid opportunities abroad in technology and other fields, fueling the national brain drain.
Russia’s Far East – on the doorstep of China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan – has been exploited for reform. A government fund commissioned by Putin is investing in projects ranging from prosthetics from Motorica to Promobot, which produces frighteningly lifelike robots. Local robotics schools for children up to 4 years old are becoming trendy – a potential local pipeline.
“You’re still trying to force something in the West that is more of something bottom-up organic,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior researcher at the CNA Research Center in Arlington, Virginia. It is not necessary to promote AI research because companies here want to do that.”
With its steep hills and spanning bridges, Vladivostok has a bit of San Francisco at its best. It’s seven time zones and an eight-hour flight from Moscow – a corner of Russia where people often say they feel like an afterthought to the Kremlin.
But for the past six years, the government has been trying to persuade people to move to the sparsely populated east, even offering a free hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land in the area. Some foreign visitors to Vladivostok can get a simplified and free e-visa for up to eight days – an economic extension to nearby Asian markets. There are also regional tax breaks for entrepreneurs and investors.
In 2018, Putin created the Far Eastern High-Tech Fund to invest in technology companies willing to own at least part of their operations in the region. One of the beneficiaries was Promobot, which was founded in 2015 and is among the largest manufacturers of self-service robots in Russia. In the past three years, its portfolio has expanded to include human-like robots with blue eyes and skin that looks real — but not warm — to the touch.
This is how Peter Chegodaev ended up in the basement of a building in the center of Vladivostok, sharing space with a bakery that makes his lab smell like bread.
Chegodayev considers himself an artist – a sculptor, to be precise – and not an engineer. His masterpieces: robots adorned with lifelike skin, hair, eyes and facial muscles.
“We subconsciously communicate more openly with our likeness,” Chigudaev said. “So I think all of this is important to get better information sharing between humans and AI, to take full advantage of it.”
Chegodayev’s background includes a decade of work in the film industry, working on visual effects. For starters, his lab now looks like something out of a horror flick.
Busts of human heads are scattered on the tables. They are all identical – similar to Promobot co-founder Alexei Yuzhakov. The goal is for Yuzhakov to one day stand next to his droid version and for The pair cannot be distinguished.
With tiny magnets placed neatly under silicone skin, human promobots can replicate nearly all of people’s facial movements. Chegodayev designed them so that they have 38 facial muscles out of 42 humans. But it can be programmed to always smile.
The hair is sewn by hand row by row in a slow and painstaking process – it can take a month for one robot. Individually painted eyes. Even the faces have dimples.
The robots are mainly used by educational institutions, said Oleg Krivokortsev, director of development for Promobot. For example, Russian medical students can practice scanning a patient with one. Old iterations act as customer service bots in museums and government offices in Moscow and Perm in Russia, where the company is headquartered.
The advantage of opening a department in Vladivostok is a cheaper workforce compared to Moscow — and even more so compared to countries strong in technology, Krivokortsev said. It can also be a new starting point.
“We are now planning to actively enter the Asia-Pacific region from Vladivostok,” he said. “And we have already begun this work.”
“Humans of the future”
On Russky Island, just a short drive from Promobot’s office, another company has cyborgs in mind – or “future humans”, as Ilya Cheikh, president of Motorica, calls them. So now they have an arm. Sheikh said that artificial organs and bones could be next.
Motorica’s bionic arm prosthesis uses sensors attached to a patient’s muscle tissue to enable some movement, such as holding a bottle. The long-term goal is to launch a prosthesis that perfectly simulates hand movement using artificial intelligence.
Motorica’s expected move to Russky Island will make it one of the first technology companies to have a base there. With a population of less than 6,000 people, Russky Island remains largely undeveloped outside of the Far Eastern Federal University campus, which opened in 2013. The campus hosts an annual economic forum and was the site of a meeting of Putin and Kim Jong Un in North Korea in 2019. The university also has its own startup sponsorship program.
Motorica has proposed making the 38-square-mile island (roughly twice the size of Manhattan) a special zone that would remove regulatory and legal barriers to implantable devices and sensors, fundamentally accelerating the development of such medical technologies. Hence the idea of ”Cyborg Island”.
“It will have its own regulations, simplified ethics committees, simplified certification, the ability to do some experimental processes without going through clinical trials and so on,” Sheikh said.
Motorica’s current base is the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow, a government site for startups. The plan is to gradually move more operations to Russky Island and help launch a new technology pool.
“If we take China and the United States, then naturally Russia is much worse in development, but not in all areas,” Sheikh said. “I see such initiatives related to invasive technologies as more promising in terms of technological leadership than artificial intelligence.”
“As for AI, it seems a bit too late, but we have at least the best programmers in the world,” he added.
All with bots
In a classroom at the Robocenter in Vladivostok, a private academy for robotics, three five-year-olds stand around a makeshift track with remote controls.
Their creations – basic robotics made of Legos – collide with each other.
The only girl in the group screams victoriously that her robot “Princess” is hitting the boys. Meanwhile, a student at the main workstation is calling the teacher for help.
He told her, “I can’t figure out how to program this.”
Within seven years, Robocenter branched out to seven locations in the Far East of Russia, with 2,500 students. By the time they graduate, they will have learned everything from programming to building underwater robots to 3D modeling and often have competed in international robotics competitions.
“Before, it was common to go to dance lessons or sports,” director Sergey Moon said. “And now it’s robots. I know people often ask others, ‘Do you take your kids to robotics clubs?’ I mean, this has almost become a necessity for many families.”
Russia has always prided itself on its innovations in the field of robotics, which include the launch of a life-size robot, Fedor, In space in 2019. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia had started the “serial production of combat robots,” adding that they are “robots that can really be shown in science fiction films, because they are capable of fighting on their own.”
But at the Robocenter in Vladivostok, 16-year-old Dmitry Sabinsky, one of the academy’s best students, looks at American robotics in awe, and especially admires Boston Dynamics’ work, such as programming robots to dance synchronously. He said it was a dream to attend MIT, but it would most likely be a university in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Even with the Kremlin’s vision to make the Far East its technology base, the truth is that clouds are still in the West. And there is a long way to go before that changes.
“People have to come here, you know?” Mun said. “We need to provide them with affordable housing, decent salaries and many companies with favorable conditions for business.”
“We have to make a clear distinction between the boasting of our rulers and the real situation,” he added. “The real situation is that robotics in Russia are poorly developed, and in terms of industrial robotics, Russia is not in the top ten.”
Marie Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.