In Russia’s Far East, technology pioneers dream of innovation center on ‘Cyborg Island’


VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – To see Russia’s ambitions for its own version of Silicon Valley, head about 5,600 miles east of Moscow, make your way through the Vladivostok hills, and then cross the bridge from the mainland to Russky Island. The Kremlin here – on a beach on the Pacific edge – hopes to create a hub for robotics and artificial intelligence innovations aimed at strengthening Russia’s ability to compete with the United States and Asia.

A new name has already been proposed for this area: “Cyborg Island”.

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

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

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

But Russia fought as the successor to the once terrifying legacy of the Soviet Union’s innovation during the Cold War arms and space race. Foreign investors are nervous about Western sanctions. And many young Russians are going abroad for better paid opportunities in technology and other fields, increasing brain drain nationally.

Russia’s Far East – on the doorstep of China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan – has been tapped to fix it. The government fund commissioned by Putin invests in projects ranging from Motorica’s prosthetics to Promobot, which creates eerily colorful robots. Local robotics schools for 4-year-olds have become a trend – a potential domestic pipeline.

“You’re still trying to impose something that’s a much more organic bottom-up thing in the West,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior researcher at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va. The United States government does not have to encourage research into artificial intelligence because companies here want to do so. ”

A worker assembles a hand prosthesis in Motorica’s offices in Moscow.(Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Eyes for silicone heads were created in the Promobot laboratory in Vladivostok.(Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

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

Touch rights

With its steep hills and bridges, Vladivostok has little San Francisco in its setting. It’s a seven-time zone and an eight-hour flight from Moscow — a corner of Russia in which people often say they feel like they’re conceived for the Kremlin.

But for the past six years, the government has been trying to persuade people to move to the sparsely populated east, offering even a free hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land in the area. Some foreign visitors to Vladivostok can obtain a simplified, free electronic visa for up to eight days – an economic access to nearby Asian markets. There are also regional tax breaks for entrepreneurs and investors.

View of the Golden Bridge in Vladivostok.
View of the Golden Bridge in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

In 2018, Putin established the Far Eastern High Technology Fund to invest in technology companies that are willing to have at least part of their business based in that area. One user was Promobot, founded in 2015 and among the largest manufacturers of autonomous service robots in Russia. In the last three years, his portfolio has expanded to humanoid robots with blue eyes and skin that feels real to the touch – but not warm.

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So Peter Chegodayev ended up in the basement of a building in downtown Vladivostok, sharing a space with a bakery where his lab smells like bread.

Chegodayev considers himself an artist – or rather a sculptor – and not an engineer. His masterpieces: robots adorned with colorful skin, hair, eyes, and even facial muscles.

“We subconsciously communicate more openly with what looks like us,” Chegodayev said. “That’s why I think all of this is important for a better share of information between humans and artificial intelligence, so that we can make full use of it.”

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

Busts of human-looking heads are scattered across the tables. They are all identical – following the example of the co-founder of Promobot, Alexei Yuzhakov. The goal is to one day put Yuzhakov next to his robot clone and for a pair that cannot be distinguished.

With small magnets precisely placed under silicone skin, Promobot’s humanoid robots can replicate almost any movement of human faces. Chegodayev designed them so that they basically have 38 out of 42 muscles of the human face. But they can be programmed to always laugh.

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The hair is sewn by hand one by one in a painstakingly slow process — a robot can take a month. The eyes are individually colored. Faces even have holes.

Robots are mostly used by educational institutions, said the director of development of Promobot, Oleg Krivokurtsev. For example, Russian medical students can practice interviewing a patient with one. Older iterations work as customer support robots in museums and government offices in Moscow and Perm, Russia, where the company is headquartered.

Krivokurtsev said that the advantage of opening a division in Vladivostok is cheaper labor compared to Moscow – and even more compared to countries of technological power. It could also be a new starting point.

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

‘People of the future’

On Russky Island, a short drive from the Promobot office, another company has cyborgs in mind – or “people of the future,” as Ilya Chekh, Motorica’s boss, calls them. So far they have had a hand. Chekh said the next ones could be artificial organs and bones.

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

Motorica’s bionic arm prosthesis uses sensors connected to the patient’s muscle tissue to allow a certain movement, such as grasping a bottle. The long-term goal is to launch a prosthesis that will fully simulate hand mobility, using artificial intelligence.

The expected relocation of Motorica to Russky Island will make it one of the first technology companies with a base there. With less than 6,000 residents, Russky Island remains largely undeveloped off the campus of the Far Eastern Federal University, which opened in 2013. The campus hosts an annual economic forum and was the meeting place of Putin and North Korean Kim Jong Un in 2019. The university also has its own program for nurturing beginners.

The motorcycle proposed to turn the island of 38 square miles (almost twice the size of Manhattan) into a special zone that would remove regulatory and legal barriers on implantable devices and sensors, which would significantly accelerate the development of such medical technologies. Hence the idea of ​​”Cyborg Island”.

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

View of Russky Island with the monastery of St. Seraphim in the foreground and the military base at the top of the hill. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

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

An old fishing boat can be seen on Russky Island.(Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Motorica’s current base is the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow, a government place for beginners. The plan is to gradually relocate more operations to Russky Island and help launch a new technology cluster.

“If you take China and the United States, Russia is, of course, much worse in development, but not in all areas,” Chekh said. “I see that such initiatives related to invasive technologies are very promising in terms of technological leadership from artificial intelligence.”

“It seems a little late for AI, but we have at least the best developers in the world,” he added.

All with robots

In a classroom at Vladivostok’s Robocentre, a private robotics academy, three five-year-olds stand around an improvised track holding remote controls.

Their creations – basic automated robots made of Lego bricks – collide with each other.

One girl in the group triumphantly shouts that her bot “princess” is beating the boys. Meanwhile, a student at the main workstation calls the teacher for help.

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

In seven years, Robocenter has expanded to seven locations in the Far East of Russia, with 2,500 students. As they graduate, they will learn everything from programming to building underwater robots to 3-D modeling and will often compete in international robotics competitions.

“It used to be fashionable to go to dance classes or sports,” said director Sergei Moon. “And now it’s robotics. I know people often ask others, ‘Do you take your kids to robot clubs?’ I mean, this is becoming an almost mandatory thing for many families. ”

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

Russia has long boasted of its robotic innovations, including the launch of a life-size humanoid robot, Fedor, into space in 2019. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia would start “serial production of combat robots”, adding that these were “robots that can really be shown in science fiction films, because they are capable of fighting them.”

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

But at the Robocentre in Vladivostok, 16-year-old Dmitry Sapinsky, one of the academy’s top students, looks at American robotics with awe, admiring Boston Dynamics’ work in particular, like a programming robot to dance in sync. The dream is to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it is more likely that there will be a university in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Even with the Kremlin’s vision of the Far East becoming its technological base, the reality is that the attraction is still in the West. And there is a long way to change.

A woman and a child visit the memorial of the Second World War in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

The domes of the Orthodox Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral shine at sunset in Vladivostok. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

The teenagers were seen through the window of a public bus, with the Vladivostok Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral in the background. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

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

“We must clearly distinguish the ostentation that our rulers emit from the real situation,” he added. “The real situation is that robotics in Russia is poorly developed, and when it comes to industrial robotics, Russia is not among the top 10.”

Maria Ilyushina of Moscow contributed to this report.

Read more:

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