Inside the creepy Chinese factory where humanoid robots come to life

Inside the Ex-Robot factory, where humanoid robots come to life (Pictures: Reuters)

On the floor of the Ex-Robots factory in China’s northeastern coastal city of Dalian, engineers develop humanoid robots with a focus on enhancing facial expressions and emotions.

The aim is for them to one day play a role in therapy and counselling – and even conduct preliminary tests for psychological disorders.

Big ambitions, but for now, the sight of the robots themselves coming to life feels enough to spark a lifetime of nightmares.

Neck-length masks lie sprawled on a table alongside silicone arms and feet, while disembodied heads sit on display and humanoid robots in various stages of construction stand nearby. Drawings of robot designs adorn a wall.

Elsewhere, five identical ‘female’ humanoid robots move in sync like the world’s most perfectly choreographed girl band. A ‘male’ robot dressed in vintage Chinese military uniform smiles blandly, holding a gun.

While the software behind the robots is similar to others, the team is working hard to make sure they stand out when it comes to human-like reactions.

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‘We have our own software and algorithm teams,’ says Ex-Robots chief executive Li Boyang, adding that humanoid robots are the most complex class of robotic products. ‘There are many basic models and algorithms that are commonly open source, which everyone uses.

‘However, we concentrate more on how to enable the AI to recognise and express expressions and emotions.’

As an Ex-Robots worker moves her head, smiles and sticks out her tongue, a humanoid robot mimics her movement thanks to tiny motors installed in several spaces in its head.

An employee is unfazed as he walks past displays of robot heads (Picture: Reuters)

Hands waiting to be attached (Picture: Reuters)

The robot’s ‘body’ parts lined up for assembly (Picture: Reuters)

‘We are also working on the foundation model,’ says Li. ‘The model we’re making is multi-modal and capable of emotional expression. It can perceive the surrounding environment and produce appropriate facial feedback.’

Ex-Robots said it takes from two weeks to a month to produce a humanoid robot, with prices ranging from ¥1.5 million (£162,000) to ¥2 million.

Silicone masks ready to cover the robot heads (Picture: Reuters)

The mask after assembly (Picture: Reuters)

The main purpose of the company’s robots so far is for display in museums, one of which Ex-Robots has housed in the same building as its factory.

Looking ahead, Li believes humanoid robots will have a bigger role to play in the healthcare and education industries.

Employees working on a humanoid robot (Picture: Reuters)

A sneak peek inside on of the robot’s ‘brains’ (Picture: Reuters)

‘Psychological counselling and health are certainly future application scenarios. We are currently conducting related research, such as auxiliary treatment and preliminary screening for emotional and psychological disorders,’ he said.

‘Moreover, I believe that emotional interaction has broader applications in service fields, such as those aimed at children.’

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