Designer Engineers Robotic Scarlett Johansson
Shawn Wasserman posted on April 06, 2016 |

Companion Robot Made by Hobbyist Proves Success of the Democratization of Engineering Tools

Mark 1 robot built from scratch by product designer Ricky Ma looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. (All images courtesy of Bobby Yip of Reuters.)

Mark 1 robot built from scratch by product designer Ricky Ma looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. (All images courtesy of Bobby Yip of Reuters.)

What happens when a product designer decides to make something a little different?

You get someone like Ricky Ma using his development skills to create his own personal robot.

The Scarlett Johansson look-alike, named Mark 1, cost him over USD$50,000 and a year and a half of his life.

What is interesting from an engineering standpoint is that Ma learned much of the technical skills needed for the construction on his own.

It would seem that the fields of CAD, CAE and 3D Printing have become so democratized that a person with little mechanical engineering knowledge could build such a robot.

Ma shows off the 3D Printed skeletal structure of the Mark 1.

Ma shows off the 3D Printed skeletal structure of the Mark 1.

About 70 percent of the Mark 1 was 3D printed. The ‘bot’s plastic skeletal structure and mechanics were then covered with silicone skin and liquid eyes. Ma has also programmed the Mark 1 to

physically and verbally respond to a series of commands.

To perform these feats, Ma had to master many of the electro-mechanics and programming skills engineers use today.

Sure, Mark 1 has many “uncanny valley” characteristics. She looks at us with dead eyes, reminiscent of a John Carpenter film. She moves more like Robby the Robot than the graceful Johansson. And when she speaks you will wish you were watching Johansson’s amazing portrayal of Samantha from “Her.” This is clearly not a life-model decoy of Black Widow. However, the abilities of the first prototype are impressive given the level of expertise Ma started this project with.

Democratization of engineering tools like CAD, CAE, 3D Printing is a big trend in the engineering industry. As a result, Ma has proven that these strategies are a success.

Companion Robots: Menace or Saving Grace?

In the video above, Ma gives the Mark 1 a series of compliments and commands to which the robot responds. When viewing these pre-programmed instructions played out by Mark 1, it’s hard not to see a clear example of the objectification of women.

There is no question that this Mark 1 robot opens a metaphorical can of legal and ethical worms. Having a personal companion robot look like a real person is problematic enough. However, as Ma is looking for investors to purchase his Mark 1 robot, Wired warns Johansson will be able to develop a legal case after the purchase. And really, can you blame her?

However, to deny the market for companion products can be a mistake for an engineering design team.

Take a region like China where the population disparity between men and women is making the largest population of bachelors the country has ever seen. These lonely individuals can gain a lot of love and satisfaction in their lives with a companion bot. Even if that love and compassion is fictional. The question is, how do we offer these men the companionship they need without objectifying women?

Companion robots can also benefit to another population: the sick and elderly. Take Paro or the fictional Baymax from Big Hero 6. These companion robots can offer the love and care people need in hard times filled with doctors, nurses and broken healthcare systems. Sure, these robots don’t look human—but to deny they are filling in a human companionship gap would be a mistake.

What are your thoughts about companion robots? Comment below.

To see how to build your own BB-8, follow this link.

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