Sun, Feb 04, 2018 - Page 15 News List

‘Smart’ sex dolls aim to
fill a void in China

By Joanna Chiu  /  AFP, DALIAN, China

An engineer makes adjustments to a robot inside an EXDOLL lab at a factory in Dalian, China, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

With China facing a massive gender gap and a graying population, a company wants to hook up lonely men and retirees with a new kind of companion: “smart” sex dolls that can talk, play music and turn on dishwashers.

Rows of voluptuous silicon bodies hang in the warehouse of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern port city of Dalian, but engineers are also working on bringing them to life.

A programmer in a lab coat asked a petite blonde prototype sitting on a chair and dressed in a see-through white blouse: “What is your name?”

“My name is Xiaodie, but you can also call me baby. But if I’m not happy, I won’t answer,” the robotic voice said through a speaker, although its lips did not move.

EXDOLL has ambitions to apply artificial intelligence to make dolls so life-like that they could cure loneliness among the country’s singletons and care for the elderly and handicapped.

There are 33.6 million more men than women in the country of 1.4 billion people.

The gap is attributed to China’s former one-child policy and a traditional preference for sons, which has led to selective and illegal abortion. About 114 boys are born for every 100 girls, far above the global average.

China also has a rapidly aging population, which is putting strains on the healthcare and social welfare system.

Seated between two non-robotic silicon companions, one in a short black skirt and a smaller model in a schoolgirl outfit, marketing director Wu Xingliang said his company’s products could solve the country’s major social problems.

“China has a shortage of women, and this is a factor in why there’s this demand, but they’re not just for sex,” said Wu, whose customers include single young and older men, but also married ones.

“We’re designing them so they can have meaningful conversations with you and help with chores around the house. They could eventually even work as medical assistants or receptionists,” Wu said.

Xiaodie is essentially a sex doll fitted with a function similar to the iPhone’s Siri voice assistant, which can surf the Internet and respond to voice commands.

It can turn home appliances that are connected to Wi-Fi on and off.

Users can control the 25,000 yuan (US$3,966) doll — much pricier than the traditional sex dolls that the company sells for as little as 2,500 yuan — with a smartphone app or by giving it verbal instructions.

In the next year, EXDOLL hopes to roll out more advanced robots featuring artificial intelligence, complex facial expressions and body movements, voice recognition and eyes that can follow people’s movements.

A shapely prototype in a racy white dress bows to greet male engineers at the factory.

The programmers pore over 3D models on computer screens, while another one assembles a skeleton with exposed wires and joints — reminiscent of the white droids in the Will Smith science fiction film I, Robot.

The machine becomes more lifelike as he gingerly affixes silicon skin — hand-painted in sultry makeup colors — over its face.

EXDOLL chief development officer Qiao Wu said the goal is to create the most beautiful and most human-like robot possible.

“There are already good robot technologies developed, so we want to concentrate on having a robot with the most beautiful face, and the hottest body,” he said.

The company makes 400 custom dolls per month, up from 10 in 2009. It began research into sex-bots in mid-2016 and now employs 120 people.

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