Bionic arms and blue-eyed bots: How Russia aims to nurture a tech hub in its Far East

Silicone heads that didn't pass quality control, in a garbage can in the Promobot lab in Vladivostok, Russia.
Silicone heads that didn't pass quality control, in a garbage can in the Promobot lab in Vladivostok, Russia. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — To see Russia’s ambitions for its own version of Silicon Valley, head about 5,600 miles east of Moscow, snake through Vladivostok’s hills and then cross a bridge from the mainland to Russky Island. It’s here — a beachhead on the Pacific Rim — that the Kremlin hopes to create a hub for robotics and artificial intelligence innovation with the goal of boosting Russia’s ability to compete with the United States and Asia.

A new name for the area has already been suggested: “Cyborg Island.”

“We have a dream,” said Artur Biktimirov, a neurosurgeon partnered with high-tech prosthetics developer Motorica, which has some operations on Russky Island and plans to expand its presence. Biktimirov hopes Motorica is the first in a tech boom there.

Ilya Chekh, chief of Motorica, which produces innovative hand protheses for adults and children, at the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow.
Ilya Chekh, chief of Motorica, which produces innovative hand protheses for adults and children, at the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

So does Russian President Vladimir Putin. For years, Putin has emphasized the country’s need to keep pace in the artificial intelligence arena. In 2017, speaking to a group of students, Putin said that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” At an AI conference late last year, he warned that “history knows many cases when large, global corporations and even countries literally slept through a technological breakthrough and were swept off the historical stage overnight.”

But Russia has struggled as heir to the Soviet Union’s once-formidable legacy of innovation during the arms and space races of the Cold War. Foreign investors are nervous over Western sanctions. And many young Russians leave for better-paying opportunities abroad in tech and other fields, adding to a national brain drain.

Russia’s Far East — on the doorstep of China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan — has been tapped for the fix. A Putin-commissioned government fund is investing in projects ranging from Motorica’s prosthetics to Promobot, which creates eerily lifelike robots. Local robotics schools for children as young as 4 have become trendy — a potential homegrown pipeline.

“You’re still trying to force something that in the West is much more of an organic, bottom-up kind of thing,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior researcher at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va. “The United States government doesn’t have to foster AI research because companies here want to do it.”

A worker puts together a hand prothesis at Motorica's offices in Moscow.(Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Eyes for silicone heads are created in the Promobot lab in Vladivostok.(Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Children get a lesson on robots at Robocenter, a private robotics academy in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Real to the touch

With its steep hills and sweeping bridges, Vladivostok has a bit of San Francisco in its ambiance. 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 for 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 receive a simplified, free electronic visa for up to eight days — an economic outreach to the nearby Asian markets. There are also regional tax breaks for entrepreneurs and investors.

A view of the Golden Bridge in Vladivostok.
A view of the Golden Bridge in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

In 2018, Putin created the Far East High Technology Fund to invest in technology companies willing to have at least a portion of their operations based in the area. One beneficiary was Promobot, founded in 2015 and among the largest manufacturers of autonomous service robots in Russia. In the past three years, its portfolio has expanded to humanoid robots with blue eyes and skin that feels real — but not warm — to the touch.

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That’s how Peter Chegodayev ended up in the basement of a building in downtown Vladivostok, sharing the space with a bakery that makes his lab smell like bread.

Chegodayev considers himself an artist — a sculptor, to be exact — rather than an engineer. His masterpieces: robots adorned with lifelike skin, hair, eyes and even facial muscles.

“We subconsciously communicate more openly with what looks like us,” Chegodayev said. “So I think this is all important for a better share of information between humans and artificial intelligence, to get the full use out of it.”

Chegodayev’s background includes a decade in the film industry, where he worked on visual effects. To the uninitiated, his lab now looks like something out of a horror flick.

Busts of human-looking heads are scattered across the tables. They’re all identical — modeled after Promobot co-founder Alexei Yuzhakov. The goal is to one day have Yuzhakov stand next to his robot clone and for the pair to be indistinguishable.

With small magnets precisely placed under the silicone skin, Promobot’s humanoid robots can replicate nearly all the facial movements of people. Chegodayev has designed them so that they essentially have 38 of the 42 facial muscles of humans. But they can be programmed to always smile.

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Hair is hand-sewn row by row in a painstakingly slow process — it can take a month for one robot. Eyes are individually painted. The faces even have dimples.

The robots are mainly used by educational institutions, Promobot development director Oleg Kivokurtsev said. For example, Russian medical students can practice surveying a patient with one. Older iterations work as customer service bots in museums and government offices in Moscow and Perm, Russia, where the company is headquartered.

Kivokurtsev said the advantage of opening a division in Vladivostok is a cheaper workforce compared with Moscow — and even more so compared with tech powerhouse countries. It also could be a new launching point.

“Now we plan to actively enter the Asia-Pacific region from Vladivostok,” he said. “And we have already started this work.”

‘Humans of the future’

On Russky Island, a short drive from the Promobot office, another company has cyborgs in mind — or “humans of the future,” as Ilya Chekh, the chief of Motorica, calls them. So far they have an arm. Chekh said artificial organs and bones could be next.

[The robot will see you now: Health-care chatbots boom but still can’t replace doctors]

Motorica’s bionic arm prosthetics use sensors connected to a patient’s muscle tissue to enable some movement, such as grasping a bottle. The long-term goal is to launch a prosthesis that will completely simulate the mobility of the hand, using artificial intelligence.

Motorica’s expected move to Russky Island will make it one of the first tech companies with a base there. With a population of fewer than 6,000 people, Russky Island remains largely undeveloped beyond the Far Eastern Federal University campus, which opened in 2013. The campus hosts an annual economic forum and was the meeting site for Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in 2019. The university also has its own program for nurturing start-ups.

Motorica has proposed making the 38-square-mile island (nearly twice the size of Manhattan) into a special zone that would eliminate the regulatory and legal barriers on implantable devices and sensors, essentially accelerating development for such medical technologies. Hence the idea of “Cyborg Island.”

“It would have its own regulations, simplified ethics committees, simplified certification, an ability to conduct some pilot operations without going all the way through clinical trials and so on,” Chekh said.

A view of Russky Island, with St. Seraphim Monastery in the foreground and a military base on top of the hill. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

A library on the Far Eastern Federal University campus, which opened on Russky Island in 2013. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

An old fishing vessel is seen on Russky Island.(Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Motorica’s current base is the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow, a government site for start-ups. The plan is to gradually move more of the operations to Russky Island and help spark a new tech cluster.

“If you take China and the U.S., then naturally, Russia is much worse at developing, but not in all areas,” Chekh said. “I see such initiatives related to invasive technologies as much more promising in terms of technological leadership than AI.”

“For AI it seems that it’s a little late, but we have the best programmers in the world at least,” he added.

Tots with bots

In a classroom at Vladivostok’s Robocenter, a private robotics academy, three 5-year-olds are standing around a makeshift track holding remote controls.

Their creations — basic automated bots made out of Legos — are crashing into each other.

The one girl in the group victoriously shouts that her “princess” bot is beating the boys’. Meanwhile, a student at the main workstation calls over to the teacher for help.

“I can’t figure out how to program this,” he tells her.

In seven years, the Robocenter has branched out to seven locations in Russia’s Far East, with 2,500 students. By the time they graduate, they will have learned everything from programming to building underwater robots to 3-D modeling and often will have competed in international robotics competitions.

“Before, it was trendy to go to dancing classes or sports,” director Sergei Moon said. “And now it’s robotics. I know people often ask others, ‘Do you take your kids to robotics clubs?’ I mean, this is becoming almost a must-do thing for many families.”

Young people at the Robocenter in Vladivostok, which has become a popular venue for learning everything from programming to 3-D modeling.
Young people at the Robocenter in Vladivostok, which has become a popular venue for learning everything from programming to 3-D modeling. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Russia has long bragged about its robot innovations, which include launching a life-size humanoid bot, Fedor, into space in 2019. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was beginning the “serial production of combat robots,” adding that they are “robots that can be really shown in science-fiction films, as they are capable of fighting on their own.”

[The U.S. says humans will always be in control of AI weapons. But the age of autonomous war is already here.]

But at Vladivostok’s Robocenter, 16-year-old Dmitry Sapinsky, one of the academy’s top students, looks at U.S. robotics with awe, admiring in particular Boston Dynamics’ work, such as programming robots to dance in sync. The dream is to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but a university in Moscow or St. Petersburg is more likely, he said.

Even with the Kremlin’s vision to make the Far East its tech base, the reality is that the draw is still to the West. And there’s a long way to go before that changes.

A woman and child visit the World War II memorial in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Domes of the Orthodox Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral gleam in the sunset in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

Teenagers are seen through the window of a public bus, with Vladivostok's Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in the background. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

“People have to want to come here, you know?” Moon said. “We need to offer them affordable housing, decent salaries, many companies with favorable conditions for businesses.”

“We need to clearly distinguish between the ostentatiousness that our rulers broadcast and the real situation,” he added. “The real situation is that robotics in Russia is poorly developed, and in terms of industrial robotics, Russia is not in the top 10.”

Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Isabelle Khurshudyan is a foreign correspondent based in Moscow. A University of South Carolina graduate, she has worked at The Washington Post since 2014, previously as a sports reporter covering the Washington Capitals, high school sports and local colleges.