Winter Olympics, Hubo and future of robots in South Korea

South Korea displayed 85 robots at the 2018 Winter Olympics. But how useful were they and what does the future hold?

professor oh jun-ho south korea robotics
Professor Oh Jun-ho headed the robotics section of the Winter Olympics [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Daejeon, South Korea – During the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea deployed 85 robots of 11 different kinds at various locations.

From providing information in various languages at Incheon Airport and offering water bottles in Pyeongchang at the Winter Games to skiing down the slopes, the tasks they performed were part of South Korea’s efforts to project itself on the robotics map. And they did not go unnoticed.

One of those 85 robots was Hubo, a humanoid created by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, just over 130km from the capital Seoul.

In December 2017, Hubo became the first robot to carry an Olympic flame. It walked around 150 metres to a wall before drilling a hole into it and passing the torch onto Professor Oh Jun-Ho, its creator and the person who headed the robotics programme at Pyeongchang 2018.

South Korea produced around $4.11bn worth of robots in 2016, a 12.9 percent increase on 2015. Domestic sales increased from $2.93bn to $3.33bn in the same period while exports went up from $749m to $857m.

On a visit to the robotics lab at KAIST, Al Jazeera speaks to Professor Jun-Ho about Hubo, other robots at the Winter Olympics and what the future holds for South Korea and its technological ambitions.

On a mobile device? Watch a 360-degrees view of the Hubo Lab at KAIST

Al Jazeera: When were you asked to make Hubo for the Winter Games? And how difficult was it to deliver what they asked you to?

Oh Jun-Ho: I made my first humanoid robot in 2002, second in 2003 and third full-scale human robot in 2004 which was called Hubo. It was the first human robot outside Japan and no other country had tried to build a human robot.

Since then I have been known as father of humanoid robots in South Korea.

When the local Olympic committee started organising the torch relay events two and a half years ago, they asked me if it was possible to use Hubo or any other robotic technology for the ceremonies. At that time, my answer was no. I told them it wasn’t possible. I didn’t want to do it because it’s too risky.

Technology is still far behind our expectation. Everything is live so if something goes wrong, it will be very catastrophic. It happens from time to time.

Secondly, there was limited time. The organisers wanted to see new things which are hard to demonstrate. 

I refused but they kept asking again and again. A year ago, they told me to forget about the opening ceremony but do something for the torch relay which was not live. So I thought about it and decided to build a new robot, Hubo FX2.

It took us just over three months from design to completion.

AJ: What other robots did you have at the Winter Olympics?

Jun-Ho: The government wanted the Olympics to become a showcase of Korea’s hi-tech advancements and demonstrations.

AI and 5G were there but that’s not visible and tangible. Robots are visible and tangible. But the type of robots they wanted – like ones they have seen in movies and exhibitions – not all such robots are ready to be delivered. They are only for movies or exhibitions.

One of the robots we used was a guide robot. It worked but I’m not sure how useful it was as most of these things can be done by smartphones. There was a lot of discussion but we decided to place them, whether they are used much or not. They look good.

We also talked about security robot but we gave up the idea because it was too difficult. There is also a wall-painting robot is kind of an inkjet printer. It goes around and paints on the walls.


AJ: You sound disappointed with what’s on offer right now. Are you optimistic about the future?

Jun-Ho: I’m a very realistic guy and I’m just looking at what we have. I’m always dreaming about the future but without profound evidence or background or foundation, that kind of vision is not. It’s mere fiction.

AJ: How difficult is to match fiction with reality?

Very difficult. Robot is a very convenient machine. It’s nothing too attractive. There’s no person or personality. AI is a very convenient smart software. It cannot be a person or personality because when you talk about AI parts, they can imitate human emotion or intelligence but that does not mean that they’re intelligent.

You project your imagination into the machine. This machine makes believe it’s intelligent.

AI can do very well in games and diagnosis but they don’t understand what a good game is. What they’re doing is getting results from calculations. Humans try to interpret the meaning of that result.

If they have limited size of memory and unlimited speed of computation, they can imitate very high level of intelligence and communication. But that’s just imitating.

They can interpret with the help of words in different languages but they don’t understand, they’re just matching from their vast database.

A robot takes part in the Ski Robot Challenge at a ski resort in Hoenseong, South Korea [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]
A robot takes part in the Ski Robot Challenge at a ski resort in Hoenseong, South Korea [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

AJ: So robots and AI do not currently work together?

Jun-Ho: A lot of people think robots should have AI but that’s not the case. A mobile phone is not smart. The apps you download are smart but the machine is just a simple computer. It’s not smart.

What we have inside a robot is the operating system, which means it has all the algorithm of working, manipulation and watching, like a camera, microphone and gyroscope.

If I ask it to go five steps in two seconds, it will. It’s ready to accept any motion command which should be given by AI or operators or a cloud.

AJ: Is there a future where robots and AI will be able to work together effectively?

Jun-Ho: It’s not easy to say, it depends on the level of application. For example, you may have a cleaning robot in your home. That is a perfect, autonomous robot because it cleans the room by moving around by itself.

So if you ask me when, I’d say it’s been done. If you’re talking about very low-level intelligence, it’s already there. For example, the smart speaker, you are conversing with a smart speaker. Some people ask if it’s a robot. I don’t think it is.


If some AI algorithm is answering you and suggests you something, that’s AI but if the result is executed with action then it becomes a robot.

But a human robot is not very practical yet. There’s not much use for one except for research purposes. It has become a kind of technology test vehicle.

AJ: The Winter Olympics are over now. Going back a couple of months, how did you feel when the torch relay, featuring Hubo, was successful?

Jun-Ho: In my mind, it was a success. I was happy, I was proud that this event helped boom the mood for Pyeongchang. It was quite meaningful in the sense that a robot was used for the first time in a torch relay and secondly, what the world is expecting from Korea. I was very proud to play an important part in showing our status in technology.

The interview was edited for length and clarity

Source: Al Jazeera