China’s next-gen sexbots powered by AI are about to hit the shelves

Future models ‘react with both movements and speech, significantly enhancing user experience by focusing on emotional connection’: producer. — SCMP

Chinese scientists and engineers are applying ChatGPT-like technology to sex robots, aiming to create interactive, AI-powered companions in the face of technical and ethical challenges.

In Shenzhen, Starpery Technology, a major producer of sex dolls, is now training its own large language model to enhance its product with artificial intelligence. These sex dolls with unprecedented capabilities – available in male or female forms – will soon be hitting the shelves.

“We are developing a next-generation sex doll that can interact vocally and physically with users, with prototypes expected by August this year,” CEO Evan Lee said early this month.

“Technological challenges remain, particularly in achieving realistic human interaction,” he said. “While simple dialogue is easy, creating interactive responses involves complex model development by specialised software companies.”

Traditional dolls, supported by a metal skeleton and a silicone exterior, are limited to simple responses and lack the expressive capabilities needed to engage with a human.

“The new generation of sex dolls, powered by AI models and equipped with sensors, can react with both movements and speech, significantly enhancing user experience by focusing on emotional connection rather than just basic conversational abilities,” Lee said.

The company, which has been focusing on the market outside China, is now also targeting the domestic sector.

Despite being a largely conservative society, with general reluctance to discuss such topics, Lee said China hosted the largest market for sex dolls, surpassing the combined sales of the US, Japan and Germany.

“People in the industry know China has a huge market, with purchasing power in major cities surpassing many European countries. The market is also open in mind – though aesthetically different from the European market,” he said.

Starpery’s road map includes developing robots capable of household chores, helping people with disabilities and providing aged care. By 2025, the company aims to launch its first “smart service robot”, capable of more complex services for people with disabilities. By 2030, these robots could be protecting people from hazardous jobs, according to the company’s plan.

To achieve this level of development, there are two main challenges: battery capacity and artificial muscles, Lee said.

Firstly, unlike electric vehicles, humanoid robots lack space for large batteries, so for them to operate independently the energy density of batteries must improve. Secondly, current engines lack the flexibility of human muscles, which can exert force over a wide range and can be both hard and soft, fitting closely to the skin, according to Lee.

Currently, to ensure realism the dolls can often weigh up to 40kg (88lbs), which is too heavy for the motor and poses a risk of falling or hurting the user.

“Therefore in the first stage, we focused on reducing the weight through improvements in materials and production processes,” Lee said. By July 2023, their 172cm-tall doll weighed just 29kg.

Lee said robots that could do household chores was a societal vision but it remained a long time away. Robotics companies could use servo motors to achieve certain functions, but considering stability and cost, commercialisation was still in the distance.

“The entire industry will need about 10 years to achieve the goal,” he said.

In addition to technical difficulties, Starpery also faces cost and ethics challenges.

Reducers – which transfer power between the motor and the robot joints – are key components in the mechanical system of humanoid robots. They generally account for 30 per cent of the robot’s cost and might need multiple gears at different joints.

“We strive to decrease the cost so that more people can afford realistic dolls, while adding motors will increase the cost (to) some extent,” Lee said.

Dolls from Starpery, which has a complete supply chain and lower manufacturing costs, are priced around US$1,500 (RM7,071). An advanced Harmony doll produced by Abyss Creations in the United States starts at US$6,000 (RM28,287).

Starpery is in Shenzhen, in southern Guangdong province, which is now the world’s largest production base for adult products, providing the company with price advantages.

“The supply chain in Guangdong is complete, and manufacturers respond quickly to market demands. New technologies can usually be seen in products, the following month it shows up somewhere else,” Lee said.

Besides Starpery, other Chinese manufacturers are also integrating AI into physical dolls. WMdoll, in Zhongshan, another Guangdong city, and EXdoll, in Dalian, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, also plan to launch interactive products.

In the past year, large language models have significantly advanced various sectors, notably transforming the humanoid robot industry.

“Innovations spurred by tailored models, trained on diverse data sets, have unleashed a wave of products that are transforming industry landscapes and user interactions,” said Tang Jie, a professor of computer science at Tsinghua University.

In the humanoid robot industry, for example, large language models play an important role in its development.

Ou Jinyan, spokesperson for LimX Dynamics, a robot development company, said: “It not only speeds up iterations in robotics, enhancing motion control, but also produces a suite of user-friendly tools that significantly (boost) developer productivity.”

In addition to technical issues, the industry faces very human considerations. AI-driven sex robots could blur ethical boundaries and reinforce harmful attitudes regarding consent and negative gender stereotypes.

Criticism includes the view that overreliance on AI companions for sexual or emotional fulfilment might lead to less genuine human connection, affecting a user’s ability to form healthy relationships with real people.

And the rapid development of AI-driven sex robots outpaces existing legal and regulatory frameworks, leading to a legal grey area concerning their use, ownership and the responsibilities of manufacturers and users.

In its 2023 paper, “Research Report on AI Ethics Governance”, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology stated: “AI that can make decisions under certain conditions could challenge human autonomy and self-perception. Large language models also pose risks of data leaks and privacy violations, as information from users could become material for training generative AI.” – South China Morning Post

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