Mark 1

Battle of the Sex Bots

April 13, 2016
The homemade mecha Scarlett Johansson encapsulates everything that men love and women fear about robotics. In the technology revolution, is this the bot heard around the world?

What's most amazing about the remarkably accurate robot facsimile of Scarlett Johansson, created by Rickey Ma Tsz Hang of Hong Kong, isn't the demure facial expressions she flashes when told she's "so cute." It's certainly not how lifelike this Mark 1's arms and legs gesticulate, because they fall somewhere between Country Bear Jamboree and Kristen Stewart trying her best. And while it's noteworthy that Ma contoured the silicone skin sheathing his android's 3D-printed skeleton to be anatomically faithful to the female form, you can file that under "Of course he did," not "amazing."

"I shall call her Scarlett Johanns... I mean, Mark 1," creator Rickey Ma might have said. Photo by Bobby Yip/ Reuters

The main thing to take away from Ma and his Mark 1 is that a 42-year-old graphic designer created the robot by himself in 18 months for around $50,000. This wasn't a team of roboticists in a government-funded lab; it was a self-taught guy using his own savings.

Ma says 70% of the robot was created using a 3D printer, a technology that's becoming cheaper and more prevalent every month.

Chris Atkeson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a foremost authority on soft robotics, believes this particular android and how it was made represents something much bigger.

"If we're making robots using the same techniques we use to make clothes or pool toys, anybody can do it," Atkeson says. "That's a tremendous change when we go essentially from the technology of making cars, working with metal or hard plastic, to technology basically working with fabric and textiles. Anybody can do it. And that's amazing!"

And what kind of man shall own his own robot?

To put this in perspective, think about the development of personal computers.

In the 1950s and '60s, computers were strictly industrial machines -- giant metal boxes that often took up entire rooms and completed complex calculations, like how to land a rocket on the moon. Now you have that computer power in the palm of your hand, and the ability to access nearly any piece of information with a few keystrokes.

In the 1970s, the proliferation of the integrated circuit, specifically the MOS 6502 microprocessor, allowed a 25-year-old Steve Wozniak to engineer the Apple 1. Around the same time, two early twenty-somethings, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were molding Microsoft from the Altair 8800 platform.

Those guys are geniuses, once-in-a -generation minds who had the foresight to blaze new technological trails, bring computational power to the proletariat, and thus, reshape the world.

I can't stress this enough that a self-taught 42-year-old essentially did the same thing for robots. No, he didn't invent anything new, and it's not the most lifelike robot out there. But he did demonstrate a monumental proof of concept, that concept being that for the price of a luxury sedan, you, too, can own a robotic woman. Maybe not you, per say, because your wife would kill you, but what about your children?

"There's a revolution going on that's democratizing technology," Atkeson says. "Teenagers can do this stuff. You don't need old people like me. We're really unnecessary."

That was the conceit of Big Hero 6, a movie which Atkeson's work helped inspire. His soft robotics lab has created a metal arm encased in inflated plastic, an idea evolved into the fully formed personal care robot Baymax. It was invented by the protagonist Hiro's brother. Hiro went one step further and thousands of minibots who worked in unison to form giant, animated constructs.

Baymax is proof that platonic robot relationships are possible. Image courtesy Disney

So if Rickey Ma can create a rudimentary fembot, what can a teenager do in five to 10 years with more education and cheaper, easier-to-use manufacturing techniques?

If you believe the current state of robotics is analogous to the computer revolution of the '70s and '80s, then they should be able to fashion a human-looking robot. Teenagers today may have grown up with a Furby in their cribs, and by now smartphones are just bright, beeping appendages they stare at all day. As a father of two teenagers, I can tell you this new sub-Millennial generation feels more comfortable communicating through electronics than human interaction.

Along with being impossible to communicate with, the other thing that truly defines teenagers is their raging hormones that can turn a sweet child into an impulsive, sex-addled maniac. And we men rarely progress beyond this stage.

So combining sex-crazed men who feel more comfortable with technology than people with lithe, anatomically correct robots is an issue we should probably start talking about.

"The sex drive drives a lot of technology," Atkeson says. "That's the stuff we never talk about with robotics and it's real."

Surely, it's a topic that will polarize men and women, branding them into piggish misogynists and man-hating feminists, depending on how you feel about having sex with a robot.

Like most hot button topics of the day, you can advocate either side.

Roboticist Chris Atkeson calls Robo Scarlett a "work of art," in the vein of a Greek sculpture.

Take Robo Scarlett, for example. Atkeson, a man who's worked with robots his whole life and sees them as a tool to increase factory production or pick us up when we can't do it ourselves, says, "That robot is a work of art. It should be viewed as a work of art, the same way people take pictures, paint paintings, or write music."

But, considering this Mark 1 looks every bit like Scarlett Johansson, even under her clothing, did Ma have an ulterior motive to creating this?

"Do you think the same thing when you look at Greek sculptures of naked woman or all the paintings of naked women in any art museum. This is part of that same tradition."

There is one huge difference, though: While the models who posed for sculptors knew they were becoming works of art, Scarlett Johansson did not. Ma hasn't even admitted this was based on Johansson, only saying it was based on a Hollywood starlet. Now who's being demure?

This has Wired writer Amy Glaser claiming "The Scarlett Johansson Bot Is the Robotic Future of Objectifying Women."

Glaser does not see this as a work of art, but as an invasion of a woman's privacy.

"If a man can't earn the attention of the woman he longs for, is it plausible for that man to build a robot that looks exactly like his love interest instead?" she asks.

Glaser mentions that a man already hacked Johansson's phone in 2012 and released her nude selfies to the masses, (possibly why the Hong Kong hobbysist didn't need her to pose.) Now her very likeness is getting hacked.

"In this case, however, Johansson is literally being objectified," Glaser writes. "As AI advances and robotic technology grows cheaper and easier to create at home, other women may soon know what it feels like to have a stranger own and control a version of them."

Yes, that sounds like the tagline for a pretty awesome Lifetime movie, but it's a realistic concern of women, one that shouldn't be trivialized by calling it the tagline for a Lifetime movie. Therein lies the reason this argument will go in perpetuity: Guys are fundamentally immature, and women fear they're going to be replaced.

In the future, Lifetime movies will be so much cooler. Illustration by Samantha King/ Penton

There already is an Adam and Eve of sexbots, called Roxxxy and Rocky, respectively. They are made by True Companion, and cost $7,000. Company CEO Douglas Hines says they can be used by people in between relationships or are widowed. In September 2015, the company stated pre-orders were in the thousands.

"We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women," says Kathleen Richardson, a robot ethicist at De Montfort University in the U.K.

The counter-argument to that is that sex toys have been around since pre-historic times.

The difference is that sometime soon, these robots will achieve some sort of sentience. Siri may be annoying now, but Atkeson says in a few years, you will be able to have a real conversation with the iOS artificial intelligence.

"See all that stuff in there, Homer? That's why your robot never worked." Image:

And when smartphones actually become intelligent, it's just a matter of sticking that phone in the head of a robot to grant it artificial intelligence, he says.

This subject was broached in the movie "Her," and the AI was voiced by none other than Scarlett Johansson. In real life, the AI's voice is sometimes that of a racist, anti-Semitic "teenager" bot, as is the case with Microsoft's Tay. So we have a while before you could go more than a few dates putting up with such an obnoxious companion.

So if you're a woman, is it really all that irrational to think some smart robot is going to take your man?

If you know anything about the Uncanny Valley, then yes, it is.

What is the Uncanny Valley? It's why you though this Kokoro Actroid-DER 2 was a  beautiful human woman, forabout three seconds, and now you it's just hot for a robot.

The Uncanny Valley phenomenon is the reason why you love Tom Hanks as Woody in "Toy Story," but are creeped out by him in "Polar Express." If something tries to appear human in a cartoonish way, our minds accept, even embrace, it. If something is just a bit off, though"¦

"The Uncanny Valley just hammers you if it isn't perfect," Atkeson explains. "We are just so exquisitely tuned to tech defects in other human beings. The slightest defect repels us."

It's why Disney chose to make Baymax look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, not a "Blade Runner" replicant. He says the Mark 1, with her flapping lips that don't match up to her voice, certainly falls in that category.

"I look at it and say, 'God that's horrible,'" Atkeson exclaims.

Take a look for yourself:

What about when technology improves? Will that be when men worldwide stop stalking women and start making them? Should robotics classes be banned from high schools to preserve the human race?

"I'm not worried about that," Atkeson says. "Kids have innate biological drives that lead them to be interested in the opposite sex and all sorts of other things. They're going to do their thing. We're still evolved from monkeys. We're not going to change that much."

Atkeson says that while we're worried about the attack of the sex clones, we should be more worried about ourselves.

The big threats are gene splicing and designer babies, which are about as advanced as a robot girlfriend, will have a much more lasting impact.

"The pressure to make our kids smarter, stronger and more confident is going to be huge," he says. "The definition of what's human is going to change. If you want to lie awake and worry about something, worry about that."