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Catching Up With Japan in Robotics
Just a couple of years ago, South Korea was no match for Japan in the development of humanoid robotics.
Led by private corporations, Japan began pouring money into the technology in the mid 1960s and the world-renowned "Asimo" of Honda is the latest creation after decades-long efforts.
Asimo, which was first unveiled in 2000, is arguably the world`s most advanced two-legged automaton as the 1.3-meter-tall robot can walk, run and climb stairs.
In comparison, just a handful of maverick scientists were working on robotics in Korea and the government had always been hesitant in dishing out big bucks in the field, already dominated by Japan.
However, things started to change last year after a pair of professors made successive breakthroughs at the state-owned Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
KAIST professor Oh Jun-ho created a prototype walking robot in 2002 and upgraded its functions to create "Hubo," a Korean version of Asimo, late last year.
Oh`s colleague professor Kim Jong-hwan surprised the world last December by creating 14 artificial "chromosomes" that he claims give the code traits of an individual.
As the nation`s low-funded projects continued to make unexpected success, the government changed its lukewarm attitude and braced for robotics as a future growth engine.
The Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) included network-based robotics as one of the country`s next-generation cash cows last year.
Five models of smart robots, of which software will be continuously upgraded through broadband networks, are being developed to go through a test run in October by being deployed to home and post offices.
After the feasibility test, the MIC looks to commercialize the network-based robots in 2007 when the global robot market size is expected to reach $4.9 billion.
Asimo vs. Hubo
Japan`s Asimo was named in honor of Russian-borne science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who created the three laws of robotics, which were featured in the recent blockbuster "I, Robot."
Officially, the title is short for "advanced step in innovative mobility" and simultaneously means "legs also," in Japanese.
Honda, the Tokyo-headquartered firm famous for its leading-edge motorcycles, began studying two-legged robots in 1986 and Asimo is its latest design disclosed in 2000.
On its debut, the 54-kilogram astronaut-like robot with its backpack stole global attention thanks to its ability to walk smoothly, climb stairs and understand voices.
Last December, Honda took the wraps off an upgraded version, dubbed the next-generation Asimo, which has a more humanlike gait and runs at a speed of 3 kilometers per hour.
To turn out the sophisticated model, which can maneuver toward its destination without stopping, Honda is believed to have spent over $300 million in the past two decades.
With Asimo to its credit, Japan appeared to maintain a comfortable gap against Korea just a few years ago. But a single scientist has managed to turn the competition around.
Spurred by Asimo, KAIST professor Oh Jun-ho began researching walking robots in early 2002 along with three students and a budget of 80 million won ($80,000) from the university.
Many, even including Oh`s team members, were doubtful about any success of the poorly funded project, but he silenced critics once and for all by completing the first model, KHR-1, in late 2002.
After creating the nation`s first two-legged walker, Oh`s team once again stormed onto the spotlight by improving the model to KHR-2 in 2003 with 220 million won.
As a no-name scientist cranked out a pair of bi-pedal locomotive robots, the Korean government increased support by granting 600 million won for Oh`s team last year.
With the money, Oh completed Hubo last December, which means he made his third-generation walking robots in as many years with minimal budgets.
"We did benchmark Asimo but the real key of our fast success is that we did not rely on past theories. Our zero-based approach has caused a paradigm shift and has earned us fast-track performance," Oh said.
Hubo, a name coined by mixing humanoid and robot, is similar in size to Asimo as the two-legged machine stands 1.25-meters tall and weighs 55 kilometers and walks at 1.3 kilometers per hour.
Oh conceded that Hubo still lags two to three years behind its Japanese rival as it cannot move up stairs nor run but he claimed Japan is already in sight.
"Back in 2002, the gap was astronomical but now it is just a couple of years. Hubo will serve as a launching pad to catapult us to soar past Japan," the 49-year-old said.
In fact, Hubo outperforms Asimo in some fields. For example, the former can move its 10 fingers independently, a feature even the upgraded Asimo doesn`t sport.
Oh expected Hubo will be able to walk up stairs by the end of June and its next version with the ability to run will be introduced as soon as early 2006.
Cross of Homegrown hardware and Software
Another KAIST professor Kim Jong-hwan basked in the limelight last December as he disclosed software that can creates 14 artificial "chromosomes" and a unique personality.
Based on different combination of 14 chromosomes, consisted of 2,000 bytes of data, Kim claimed the software modeled on human DNA can be credited with the title of the first artificial creature in history.
"In response to external stimuli, the chromosome-equipped virtual robots showed 77 different behaviors, meaning each software has a distinctive personality," the 47-year-old said.
With the development of associated technologies, Kim projected the number of chromosomes would be augmented as the software robot evolves to a higher-grade.
"We will install this software into a robot within the first half of this year. This is a starting point of the future and gives us a glimpse what is in store in the years to come," he noted.
Such scientific exploits brighten the prospects that Korea will make noise in the global robotics market in conjunction with the network-based robot project.
The MIC originally set up a strategy that Korea, the latecomer in a robotics industry, should carve out a niche by researching software instead of the already crowded hardware segment.
Under such tactics, the ministry focused its efforts on developing network-enabled robots against those countries, which have researched the embedded software in addition to hardware.
Human-like robots need three functions _ sensing, processing and action _ and the network models outsource most sensing and processing abilities by connecting to the Internet.
"Think of downloading up-to-date software to your robot via a high-speed Internet network, not solely depending on the incorporated software which can not upgraded everyday," MIC project manager Oh Sang-rok said.
"Then, the hardware will just provide mobility while sensing and processing powers come from broadband networks, slashing prices of automatons to a reasonable level," he added.
The MIC will kick-start feasibility tests of five different network-based robots in October _ three for home usage and two for post offices _ and the first-phase five dummies will move on wheels.
Such a plan disclosed last year was based on the assumption Korea will fail to overtake robotic powerhouses in such sectors as bi-pedal walkers.
"Our initial plan was to join the competition in robotics software. But as Korean scientists continue to make a leap in hardware like Hubo, we will be able to create a juicy cross between homegrown hardware and software in the lucrative robot market," Oh said.
Oh projected the locally developed hardware, like Hubo, and the software, the network-based solution, will be cocktailed with the progress of each segment.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan, the network robot`s global hardware market will reach around 3.5 trillion yen by 2013.
The ministry also expects the markets of online robot-associated application equipment and services will come in at 4.3 trillion yen and 12 trillion yen at the cited year, respectively.