A DIY Scarlett Johansson robot raises presence issues

[The story of a Hong Kong man who has created a DIY robot that looks like a famous actress has received a lot of press – the piece below from Wired examines some of the many implications. For more, see the Mirror’s 1:17 minute report and creator Ricky Ma’s 1:33 minute ‘making of’ video on YouTube. –Matthew]

Ricky Ma's robot

The Scarlett Johansson Bot Is the Robotic Future of Objectifying Women

April Glaser
April 4, 2016

As robotics and 3-D printing technologies become more accessible to home tinkerers, men are (of course) building robots of beautiful women. Anyone who’s turned on a TV in the past decade shouldn’t be surprised to learn that one of the first—and creepiest—examples of this development involves movie star Scarlett Johansson.

News broke on Friday about a Hong Kong designer who made a robot that looks just like the award-winning actress—although Ricky Ma, the robot’s creator, wouldn’t name the actress he modeled the bot on, choosing instead to call it Mark 1. It took Ma eighteen months and over $50,000 to complete the project, which he constructed on his patio with a 3-D printer and software that he taught himself how to use.

The question, however, is one of precedent. 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? Is there any legal recourse to prevent someone from building a ScarJo bot, or Beyonce bot, or a bot of you? Sure, people make doll and wax replicas of famous people all the time. But the difference here is that Mark 1 moves, smiles, and winks.

“It being animate all of a sudden for some reason feels too invasive,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “If [Ma] were to gain commercially in almost any way from this, and even arguably the notoriety he has gained from this, Scarlett Johansson could almost certainly sue him.”

This isn’t the first time someone’s built a robot that resembles a celebrity. As Calo notes in a recent paper, Samsung ran a series of ads in the early 1990s that featured a robot in a fancy dress and a blonde wig who was turning letters on a wall in what was a clear depiction of Wheel of Fortune star Vanna White, even if the bot did have a metal face. White sued, and won, showing that “Samsung spent a lot of money on the ads, and that they also paid Morton Downey Jr. a lot of money to be in the other ads,” says Calo.

It was the same story with two robots who resembled the Cliff and Norm from Cheers that were installed in an airport bar. John Ratzenberger and George Wendt, the actors who played those characters, also sued, in a case that was settled after reaching the Supreme Court.

But Ma made the robot in his house and may not necessarily profit. “So here Scarlett Johansson might face more First Amendment pushback,” said Calo. Still, according to Reuters, Ma does hope that an investor will buy his robot, which could give Scarlett Johansson clearer grounds to take legal action.

The Mark 1 isn’t that intelligent. She only has a few canned responses to entertain her interlocutor. Yet when you tell her she’s beautiful, the corners of her mouth raise in a slight smile and her eyebrows relax as if she’s embarrassed to accept the compliment. The expression is remarkably lifelike.

And in reality, it’s not hard to make a replica doll. The American Girl doll collection allows any parent to make a realistic-looking replica of their child. That’s certainly not illegal. Other robotics labs have made more meticulous robotic replicas of humans, most notably Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories in Japan, one of the most advanced and well-funded robotics labs in the world. What makes Ma’s Frankenstein-like invention so remarkable is that he built it it in his apartment.

“There’s no doubt that as the robotics technology democratizes, we’ll see an increase in attempts to make your own personalized Kim Kardashian, for example,” says Ohio State University law professor Margot Kaminski. “And there’s also no doubt in my mind that this will have a gendered component. Siri’s a woman, Cortana’s a woman; if robots exist to perform labor or personal assistances, there’s a darn good chance they’ll be women.”

This isn’t Johanssen’s first blush with men acting in extremely over the top ways to get close to her. A cyber-stalker who hacked her computer and stole nude photos of the actress was thrown in prison for 10 years in 2012. In this case, however, Johansson is literally being objectified. 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.


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