A NEW DAWN

The inventor of the world’s best robot believes robots will make us better, happier people

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We can’t stop a robotics revolution—and we might be foolish to try. Instead, it’s time to work out how robotic technology can make us better, happier people. That’s the philosophy of Oh Jun-Ho, a South Korean robotics engineer and professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “Eventually,” he says, “[robots] will help us to keep our dignity as a human. That’s my belief.”

Oh is the brains behind Hubo, a state-of-the-art humanoid robot, which walks on two legs. It can open doors, climb stairs, and even gesticulate with its five fingers. Before 2015, Hubo was all but unheard of—until it competed against the best humanoids from around the world in the DARPA robotics challenge and won, beating out competition from such heavyweights as NASA and MIT.

Before that victory in Florida, Oh had struggled to get the funding and time he needed to work on these robotics projects. His background is in mechanical engineering—robotics was just a side hobby—and requests for funding and time off from his university were repeatedly denied. Eventually, he received small loans from his colleagues, enabling him first to build the bipedal KHR1 and then to receive the funding he needed to build the KHR2. By 2004, he had built the first prototype of Hubo. Most of his experiments, however, haven’t worked: “Developing robots is 99% failure, and last time success,” he says.

Oh’s biggest project, however, is working out how to usher in the best possible robotics future, via his company Rainbow Robotics. He wants robots to perform assistive roles, such as helping people with disabilities or the elderly with tasks they may not be able to do themselves: “washing your body, toilet, eating,” and other such “personal matters,” he says, in an effort to preserve people’s dignity. In his own old age, he says, “I want to be assisted by my own robot,” he says. Rather than using humanoid robots like Hubo for the task, he’s experimenting with “cobots”—collaborative robots—which are cheaper, easier to use, and built to work alongside humans.

Oh believes that we’ll get to a point where robots outperform humans on a variety of manual tasks, leaving us free to do the things we enjoy more and are better at, including work that requires creativity or compassion. Little by little, we’re stepping into a new dawn of robotics—and it’s something to look forward to, rather than dread.

“Humans are so adaptable to everything,” he says. “It will be gradually appearing, we will have enough time to adjust ourselves to the environment.”