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Robotic Wonders

Las Vegas as a high-tech center for robotics? It's doable in the next decade, according to engineering professor Paul Oh.

Research  |  Apr 21, 2015  |  By Julie Ann Formoso
Paul Oh poses with a few of his robots

UNLV engineering professor Paul Oh poses with a few of his robots. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

Engineering professor Paul Oh and his team of UNLV researchers and students are featured in the NOVA special “Rise of the Robots,” premiering Feb. 24, 2016. In June 2015, the team's robot, Metal Rebel, placed eighth in the world during the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. “Rise of the Robots” follows the DARPA teams through real-world challenges designed to replace humans with robots in disaster relief situations. The program investigates the cutting-edge technologies that are advancing robotics as never before — and the enormous challenges that the robots still face. Check your local listings for air times. This story on Oh was originally published in UNLV Magazine, spring 2015.

Smart robots, capable of sensing situations and thinking of solutions on their own, have long been the subject of science fiction. But Paul Oh is determined to make interacting with them no longer something only imagined. The engineering professor moved his Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab to UNLV in 2014, in part because he believes the state and the university are making smart investments right now in economic development.

In this interview, he shares his thoughts about how Las Vegas can become the elite hub for robotics.

Robots inspire wonder. People dream about a robot to help with their chores or who would be a buddy, a protector, or a companion.

In your kitchen, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of micro-controllers. They're in microwaves to toaster ovens. As robots evolve, they will become transparent too. You won't even realize they're around.

The first device I built was a custom joystick that allowed me to design my own arcade games. Consumer computers were kind of a novelty. This was before the World Wide Web and the Internet. I started to design my own computer games and my own hardware. I guess that was good training for robotics.

I lived in Asia for a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a lot of criticism that American products and manufacturing were behind those in Japan and Korea. When I returned to the United States, I wanted to take the things that I learned and put it into American robotics. The real advantage for Asian countries was that they used robots to improve their manufacturing processes. I felt obligated to bring that back to the United States.

Many people know what they do. Some people know how they do it. But very few people know at the core why they do what they do. They may say it's for money. But that's not really why. That's just an outcome.

My lab has has had three real watershed moments. The first two -- 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina -- forced us to ask ourselves, "Is there a way that robotics could have a real impact in disaster response?" That became a real driver in what we do. Then I spent 10 weeks at Boeing Corp., which in Asia is a world leader in humanoid robotics. In America, we're a leader in artificial intelligence. It just seemed sensible to combine those two fields. It also helped me appreciate the need for my own lab to be very global.

I have a lot of things cooking. In the near term, our focus is the DARPA Robotics Challenge to develop a robot for humanitarian and disaster relief. We were one of just 25 groups selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the competition.

Over the next two to five years, I want our robotics lab to dazzle. Whether it's with drones, vehicles, or legged-robots, we feel we could really make an impact by partnering with business. It's part of putting Southern Nevada on the map in the robotics world.

The five- to 10-year plan is more grandiose. I call it Roboland or maybe Robouniverse.

It will be educational, like the Smithsonian. It will have some rides, like Universal Studios, so families can get their kids excited about science and engineering. And it will be the place to unveil robotics technology, like (Consumer Electronics Show). People come from all over the world to see tomorrow's electronics or the fantasy of future cars at CES. We can do the same for robotics.

I think people have forgotten that Las Vegas has a very rich heritage in high-tech. It was once the place for aerospace and aeronautical systems, thanks to people like Howard Hughes.

We kind of let other regions emerge and we lost a lot of that pool of talent. It's impacting future generations and students who are living in this region.

People will come to Vegas again for technology. But we must create the infrastructure to draw them back. And the timing it right.

We know that our school systems can rank much higher than they currently do. We know we want to offer our children more career options. They need a stage to show off their God-given talents and apply them to a real-world application. But we need a pathway. I really want to be a part of this conversation.

It's no surprise to me that companies in California or Arizona just scoop up our top graduates. But as a state school, our job is to prepare students for our own state's future. We have to give them opportunities they deserve. Experiences like the DARPA Robotics Challenge really connect the students and the faculty.

I think the fear that people have of robots taking jobs is a misunderstanding. Some jobs should be taken over. Some jobs put people in incredibly dangerous situations. Some jobs are so mundane that people shouldn't be subjected to them. But I don't see a robot taking over the human spirit. And that human spirit is about creativity, expression. It's about caregiving. It's about kinship. It's about inspiring wonder.

My favorite sci-fi movie would have to be Blade Runner. It's very existential. The robots have an expiration date. They're ultimately trying to find purpose. Why were they created and who created them? I think that's a very human question.