Like innumerable children with imaginations fired by animated films, Hong Kong product and graphic designer Ricky Ma grew up watching cartoons featuring the adventures of robots, and dreamt of building his own one day.
Unlike most of the others, however, Ma has realized his childhood dream at the age of 42, by successfully constructing a life-sized robot from scratch on the balcony of his home.
The fruit of his labors of a year-and-a-half, and a budget of more than $50,000, is a female robot prototype he calls the Mark 1, modeled after a Hollywood star whose name he wants to keep under wraps. It responds to a set of programed verbal commands spoken into a microphone.
“I figured I should just do it when the timing is right and realize my dream. If I realize my dream, I will have no regrets in life,” said Ma, who had to learn about fields completely new to him before he could build the complex gadget.
Besides simple movements of its arms and legs, turning its head and bowing, Ma’s robot, which has dark blonde hair and liquid eyes, and wears a gray skirt and cropped top, can create detailed facial expressions.
In response to the compliment, “Mark 1, you are so beautiful”, its brows and the muscles around its eyes relax, and the corners of its lips lift, creating a natural-seeming smile, and it says, “Hehe, thank you.”
A 3D-printed skeleton lies beneath Mark 1’s silicone skin, wrapping its mechanical and electronic parts. About 70 percent of its body was created using 3D printing technology.
Ma’s journey of creation was a lonely one, however. He said he did not know of anyone else in the former British colony who builds humanoid robots as a hobby and few in the city understood his ambition.
“During this process, a lot of people would say things like, ‘Are you stupid? This takes a lot of money. Do you even know how to do it? It’s really hard,'” Ma said.
He adopted a trial-and-error method in which he encountered obstacles ranging from frequent burnt-out electric motors to the robot losing its balance and toppling over.
“When you look at everything together, it was really difficult,” said Ma, who had to master unfamiliar topics from electromechanics to programing along the way, besides learning how to fit the robot’s external skin over its components.
Ma, who believes the importance of robots will only grow, hopes an investor will buy his prototype, giving him the capital to build more, and wants to write a book about his experience, to help other enthusiasts.
The rise of robots and artificial intelligence are among disruptive labor market changes that the World Economic Forum projects will lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years.
(Writing by Clarence Fernandez)