Shenzhen-based LimX Dynamics shows off one of its humanoid robots.

Dynamics of Limx

BEIJING — Artificial intelligence like ChatGPT is accelerating research and bringing humanoid robots closer to reality in China, home to many of the world’s factories.

AI has been around for decades. What has changed with the advent of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot is the ability of AI to better understand and generate content in a human way. Although the US-based technology is not officially available in China, local companies such as Baidu have released similar chatbots and AI models.

In robotics, the development of generative AI can help machines understand and perceive their environment, said Li Zhang, COO of Shenzhen-based LimX Dynamics.

About three months after joining the two-year-old startup, Li said he has scaled back his expectations of how long it will take LimX to produce a humanoid robot capable of not only working in a factory but also helping around households.

Li originally expected the entire process to take eight to ten years, but now expects some use cases to be ready in five to seven years. “After working for a few months, I saw how the capabilities of different tools were improved thanks to AI,” he said in Mandarin, as translated by CNBC.

“It accelerated our entire research and development cycle,” he said.

Companies are jumping at the opportunity. OpenAI itself supports a humanoid robot startupswhile Elon Musk’s Tesla develops its own called Optimus.

Electric car giant BYD last year invested in Shanghai-based Agibot just months after its founding, according to PitchBook.

And at a high level, Chinese state media in November published a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping watching a humanoid robot at an exhibition center on his first trip to Shanghai since the pandemic. The robot was developed by Fourier Intelligence.

Before humanoid robots reach households, as LimX eventually intends, factories could be a lucrative, closed scenario in which to deploy them.

China overtook Japan in 2013 as the world’s largest assembler of industrial robots and now accounts for more than 50% of the global total, according to the latest Stanford data AI Index Report.

Electronics, automotive, and metalworking and machinery are the top three sectors for installing industrial robots in China, the report said.

Impact on human jobs

However, when it comes to completely replacing human workers, AI improvements alone are not enough.

Even if AI allows a robot to think and make decisions on par with humans, mechanical limitations are a major reason why humanoids cannot yet replace human workers, LimX’s Li said.

One of LimX’s backers, Future Capital, has also invested in a company called Pan Motor, which specializes in motors for humanoids.

Generative AI doesn’t directly help with robotic movement, said Eric Xia, a partner at Future Capital, an investor in LimX. But “advances in large-scale language models could help humanoid robots with advanced task planning,” he said in Chinese, as translated by CNBC.

Other LimX investors include Lenovo Capital.

The shift to factory robots may accelerate once the cost of a robot falls.

Steve Hoffman, chairman of a startup accelerator called Founders Space, said he is working with a Chinese startup called Fastra, which expects to start mass producing robots within a year. He said he spent some time in China this year teaching local businesses how to integrate generative AI.

“We’ve already received six orders from research institutions,” he said, noting that the startup aims to bring the cost of a robot down to between $50,000 and $100,000 through deployment.

“If we can get to $50,000, we can sell a lot of robots,” he said, noting that the robots’ batteries can be charged while they are running, 24 hours a day. “He can pay for the robot in a year.”

In pharmaceutical research, generative artificial intelligence can reduce costs without requiring human labor.

“You don’t save costs in our business by having fewer people. You actually save costs by doing fewer experiments that fail,” said Alex Zhavoronkov, chairman, CEO and CEO of Insilico Medicine, which has offices in Hong Kong, New York and other parts of the world.

He noted how big pharmaceutical companies typically have to spend thousands of dollars to replicate a molecule for testing — and would run several thousand such tests per program. He claims that using AI, Insilico only needs to synthesize about 70 molecules per program.

The company published a paper in Nature in March claiming to have reached phase 2 clinical trials for an AI generated medicine.