Ricky Ma just turned 43, but his obsession with robots took root 35 years ago when he fell in love with a Japanese cartoon. Called Plawres Sanshiro, the story followed a boy who has his robot fight in robot battle tournaments. Ma desperately wanted to build his own robot, and started tinkering with basic motors while still in grade school.
This is the first mini-robot head Ma built, more than 20 years ago (middle). It can be inserted into the head model (on the left) to create a basic moving robotic head.
At first, Ma made every part of his robots by hand. With no formal training in robotics, he’s had to teach himself everything, from molding to programming. He draws on some basic mechanics he learned helping out in his father’s watch manufacturing factory, supplemented with advice from hardware store owners and YouTube videos.
He started trying to replicate Scarlett Johansson at the beginning of 2014. It took him weeks to make the skull and ribs with plastic pads that he painstakingly cut and glued together. But after that, he scanned and 3D printed them in only a few days, so now he can adjust the structure digitally.
Ma believes the ultimate robots are extremely lifelike humanoids, for reasons that are both practical and emotional. Humanoid robots may be better at doing jobs designed for humans. Ma also thinks they’ll be easier to bond with.
“When you’re lonely, you want to talk to a person,” Ma said. “I think you just feel more comfortable mentally.
But not everyone loves the idea of having extremely lifelike humanoids among us. A 2016 study found the more human a robot looks, the more threatened people feel by it. The research echoes a famous theory called “ the uncanny valley,” proposed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori over 40 years ago. He argued that as robots become more lifelike, humans like them better—up to a point. When a robot starts to look very real, but fails to be completely lifelike, Mori said, empathy suddenly switches to revulsion.
Still, many roboticists are forging ahead. Robokind, a Dallas-based robotic company has paired with medical researchers to build humanoids for people with autism. (And they’ve seen some positive results.) Humanoids are also being created for pleasure: companies like RealDoll are working to build sex robots. NASA is developing the humanoid Robonaut to help astronauts explore other worlds. Its human shape will make it easier to do the same job as a person.
“Humans are brilliant, beautiful, compassionate, lovable, and capable of love, so why shouldn’t we aspire to make robots human-like in these ways?” roboticist David Hanson argues in an op-ed. He’s the founder of Hanson Robotics, a company dedicated to building lifelike robots.
Ma agrees that the only robots worth building are those that look like humans. But he doesn’t believe robots will ever be as smart and empathetic as humans. He’s Christian and doubts humans are truly capable of recreating a “brain” built by God.
He doesn’t believe robots will be capable of love and compassion, but he is sure that humans will still want them: “If you’re going to space on an exploration mission and you can only bring one robot with you, would you bring a steel robot with a hard shell or would you bring a human-like robot? I think the answer is obvious.”