If Boeing isn’t American does that mean Hubo isn’t Korean?

My Slip-of-the-Tongue: In 2006, I made the mistake of saying that “Boeing is an American company” in a speech to Boeing executives in Seattle.  To give context, this was after Boeing hosted me for 10-weeks as one of 12 Welliver Fellows to provide advice to their Enterprise.   One senior executive corrected me saying that “Boeing is a Global company” rather than simply an American one (see figure below showing Boeing’s 787 was a product of multiple countries).

Photo adapted from a Forbes April 2006 article showing the Boeing 787 was created "globally"

Photo adapted from a Forbes April 2006 article showing the Boeing 787 was created “globally”

At first, I thought his statement was just marketing rhetoric.  But I made a similar mistake that year again.  In an audience of executives in Seoul, I said “Samsung is a Korean company”.  Their VP corrected me saying that Samsung isn’t Korean but is a “Multinational” company.

Was this just rhetoric?  Mind you, this was 2006 – about the time “The World Is Flat” by Thomas Friedman became a best-selling book and before the word “globalization” became part of everyday language.

I grew up associating brands with countries; Rolex is from Switzerland, BMW is from Germany and Sony is from Japan.  However, like many things today, associations are blurry.  Are Hyundai cars assembled in Alabama still Korean?  Are iPhones manufactured in China still American?  Sure, one can debate nationalities of products, but one can also appreciate that the “borders” are blurry and less defined that in years past.

Hubo is “Global” too: Let me begin by saying Hubo was conceived, designed and developed by Prof. Jun Ho Oh at KAIST (Korea’s leading science and engineering university).  Since its debut in 2000, each generation of this humanoid captured international headlines.  In some senses, Hubo is an icon of Korea’s robotics program.  In 2008, my lab acquired a Hubo from KAIST through the US National Science Foundation’s PIRE program.

Like Boeing's 787, Hubo is a result of a US-Korea partnership

Like Boeing’s 787, Hubo is a result of a US-Korea partnership

Like computers, Hubo needs application software to be useful.  The goal of our grant was to marry KAIST’s world-class robot hardware designers with America’s world-leading robot software researchers.  This global marriage endeavored to catalyze humanoids by giving the robot the (machine) intelligence to physically do useful tasks.  Without “American” software, Hubo would simply be a mechanical puppet and without “Korean” hardware, the “intelligence” could not be applied… Hence, I argue (and I think my colleagues agree), Hubo is “global” too.  The figure shows the different areas of Hubo partners are working on.

US Students at Risk: The National Academies report that less than 3% of American science and engineering students have any significant (non-tourist) experiences abroad. By contrast, over 50% of European and Asian students leave their continents for 6+ months working in labs overseas.  These aren’t back-packing vacations or globe-trots.  Rather, European and Asian students are learning cross-cultural skills and developing international networks to work in “global” companies.  These students will be the designers of tomorrow’s consumer electronics, gaming consoles, automobiles and airplanes.  They will fuel their country’s economies with new products, multinational markets and global services…  Can American students compete given such statistics and mindsets?

Hubo – Teaching US Students Skills for International Collaboration:  Unlike perhaps many liberal arts students, American computer science and engineering majors see little need to go overseas to learn.  After all, with the internet can’t one simply collaborate over email and Skype?  Also, isn’t America the “best” technologically – so why go abroad?

I asked the same question when I started our PIRE project.  I doubted that my students would study 3-terms of Korean language, live in Korea for 6-months working full-time in the KAIST Hubo Lab, and engage in a culture very different from America.

To my surprise, many of my students were willing to leave their “comfort zone”.  The opportunity to get another key-hole into life, double their perspective by seeing the world outside of America, and to work with a world-class robot was too good to pass up.  I’m happy to say that from 2008 to 2012, I’ve sent over a dozen American students to Korea – you can see their blogs here.

For many of these students, Korea was their first trip outside of the US (and for some, even outside of Philadelphia).  Some never flew on an airplane before.  Some never had a passport – nor did their parents.  Some were nervous (doesn’t the world hate Americans?).  Some would miss Thanksgivings, family reunions and friends’ birthdays.

But they all returned intrepid world-travelers!  They gained confidence and boldness.  They learned to adapt to new cultures and relationships.  They self-actualized.  Moreover, they learned how to collaborate with non-Americans developing a very complex robot – skills they can translate when they join the “Boeings” of tomorrow to create “global” products.

After DRC, perhaps tomorrow's Hubo will be a product of many nations - just like a 787

After DRC, perhaps tomorrow’s Hubo will be a product of many nations – just like a 787

DRC is Global Too:  As you probably know now, the DRC was motivated by the limitations of the Fukushima disaster response.  Fukushima had world-wide impact, not only with radioactive spread but with disrupted global supply chains.  As such, DRC-Hubo has even more significance than simply bringing Korean and American roboticists together.  DRC-Hubo provides both “learning” and “teaching” moments ranging from technology, international collaboration and designing products for the greater good of all mankind.

With that, Hubo may have originated from Korea but today is a result of a US-Korea collaboration for tomorrow’s global needs.

Godspeed and Open to your comments!


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About Paul Oh

I'm Paul Oh, a robotics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and lead for team DRC-Hubo. I founded the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab (DASL) in 2000 and serve as its director: http://dasl.mem.drexel.edu. DASL has participated in disaster response and worked with first responders to develop technologies since 2001.
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