“Vision for a better future through the development of advanced robotics”
Engineer and Educator - Dr. Dennis Hong
Study of robotics runs parallel to a study of how human lives are maintained - Details of people's movements, needs and interactions across space and time. Dr. Hong shares his insights and thoughts on his passion for robotics research and teaching.
Please tell us about your background.
Long story short, I was born in Palos Verdes, California near Los Angeles, moved to South Korea with my family when I was 3 years old, and stayed there until my 3rd year in Korea University. I still have friends there and consider Korea home. I am completely bilingual and bicultural. When I moved back to the States, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This is actually a difficult question to answer. I can start with when I was still in my mother's womb. I kicked so often that my mom said, "If our baby is a boy, he's going to be really mischievous." My dad decided to name me after Dennis the Menace, and indeed I lived up to my name. I was always running around, breaking things and causing trouble. Whenever we bought a piece of electronics equipment such as a brand new TV or a washing machine, I would disassemble and break it. My parents never scolded or punished me because they knew that I wasn’t merely breaking things. Through this process, I learned how various appliances work and later became the repairman in the family. In the end, the process paid off for my parents because I started fixing things instead of breaking things! This way of upbringing really paved the road in my quest to become an engineer. In addition, both of my parents are university professors and my brothers and sisters are also all in scientific and engineering fields so I grew up in a, so-to-speak, geeky family. Our discussion at the dinner table frequently revolved around science and engineering related topics.
As I mentioned, I grew up in this geeky family so science and engineering is in my blood. I gained two major perspectives from the way I was raised; As an educator and as a robotics engineer. In terms of teaching, my parents are professors, my grand-parents were teachers and one of my ancestors was a seo-dang(??) teacher. Teaching is in my blood. The robotics interest stemmed from when I was seven years old. When I returned to the United States for a vacation, I watched Star Wars - Episode 4 for the first time in the Hollywood Mann's Chinese theater (now Grauman's Chinese Theater). It completely blew my mind. It was absolutely stunning and I became really fascinated by the Robots - R2-D2 and C-3PO. It was then that I decided to become a robot scientist and I have loved being involved in this field since. It's kind of interesting how Hollywood movies can have such an impact on your life. As you can see from some of my work, the types of novel locomotion stem from R2-D2 and humanoid robots from C-3PO.
Did you experience any identity crisis growing up?
I wouldn’t say that. Though I was born in the States, I lived in a world different from that of a typical 2nd generation Koreans because I grew up in Korea. I did experience a big change when I came back to the United States as an “international student”. I got to go through the typical international student “adjustment period”.
Was it a smooth transition from Korea to USA?
Language is always a big factor in transition. Thankfully, I already spoke English very well and picked up idioms fairly quickly. My mom was an English professor, and I still had my US citizenship while in Korea. This meant I was able to travel abroad, which was very difficult for my Korean peers at the time. I remember having spent a couple of summer vacations in the States. Also, right before my permanent move to States, I went to summer school at Stanford and lived with my brother who was working on his PhD. That really helped me with the transition.
In pursuing your career as an engineer and a professor, what has been your primary goal and has it changed at all?
First of all, I got into Robotics because I thought it was cool - I was not really thinking about the social impact and so on. Since then, my goal has changed. It is still fun and cool, but now I am thinking more about the applications aspect. For example, our unique robotic hands can be used for low-cost prosthesis, novel locomotion robots with high mobility for search and rescue missions, and a new car that can be driven by the blind which we call the “blind driver challenge” could have a huge impact not only to the blind community but also on the society. All these things that we are developing now are for real people and for helping society. We are making a huge technological impact on society and that has changed how I look at robotics and what I pursue.
what was the biggest obstacle or failure that you have faced so far?
I guess the biggest obstacle for me was something that many other people in other fields have also faced. Robotics in particular is a very diverse field. I am a mechanical engineer but the field of robotics covers so many areas: computer science, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, biology and chemistry, and so on. To work in the field means to have knowledge in all of these areas. During my PhD work, I focused on kinematics and on the mechanical sides of robotics. When I joined Virginia Tech as a faculty member, there were some opportunities in the autonomous vehicle technology area, which I knew nothing about at the time. I pretty much had to start from scratch - I studied even harder than when I was a graduate student! Another challenge that most new assistant professors experience is getting research funding and writing effective grant proposals. During the transition from a graduate student to a faculty member, there were a lot of things that I had to learn, and a lot of sleepless nights working.
In terms of current obstacles, I have projects that are placed on hold because we need more research funding but since I have so many other research projects going on, I don't have time to write new proposals for them.
This type of delays happens all the time. The expectations for a researcher in academia are different from that for a professional working in a company where you really need to deliver results on time. As a researcher, it's ok to fail. You are pursuing cutting edge research and sometimes it leads to breakthroughs, sometimes it doesn’t. If you are a student researcher, that's why you are in school. It's a learning process. Things don't work out? That's perfectly fine. You just sit down and try to learn from the mistakes and what went wrong – It is very different from getting a fail, an F in your transcript!
The most important thing is never to dismiss a failed experiment without careful analysis. I never call any of my experiments a failure. I say, “Oh that was interesting, but what if we do it this way?”
One difficulty in academia (especially in our labs) is the lack of efficient process for passing knowledge. We have students come and go, working on different projects using trial and error. We learn valuable lesson from all these failures and errors. However, unlike companies, my students graduate and leave taking all their knowledge with them. Many times, next year’s students repeat the same mistakes. Of course, that’s why I’m here. I’m supposed to tell them what failed, but that doesn’t happen all the time. That’s always the problem and I don’t have a perfect solution for it yet. I ask all of my students to burn DVDs with all the notes, codes, documents, so that we have all the records, but how to transfer that effectively to the next generation of students is still unresolved.
How do you manage so many different projects?
In our Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa), I currently work with 9 PhD students, 9 masters students, 2 visiting professors, a postdoc (recently left), and 30 undergraduate researchers. If you just look at the number of people per faculty, we might be the largest robotics laboratory in the United States, if not in the world. When I first started, I had 7 students. Eventually, it became so big that the operation and management aspect of the lab was troublesome. It is very difficult running a weekly meeting, let alone individual meetings, with my 18+ students. After consulting some of my mentors, they advised me to hire Postdocs to manage the lab while I do the “higher” level work. It actually turned out to be a disaster, but it made me realize what I enjoy the most and that is to work with the students and interact with them. But then, I’m back to my original problem of trying to manage a lot of students. I don't have a solution yet but I try to manage this lab like it is a company. I try to assign tasks to my 18 graduate students to fill roles such as out-reach activity coordinator, RoMeLa librarian, editor, lab tour coordinator and machine shop manager, etc. For example, a lab tour coordinator takes care of the many emails and phone calls from people requesting for lab tours. When students write papers, I do read every single one of them, but I can utilize an editor to correct grammar and technical writing of the papers. This system is sort of working out and is still a work in progress. It took 6 years to establish this system.
How did you gain support from other people in your field?
One of the reasons that I joined Virginia Tech was due to a professor there that I consider my mentor. As a graduate student, I read a lot of his papers and I looked up to him. A lot of things that I did at Tech such as working closely with the undergraduate students were inspired by him. However, as soon as I joined Virginia Tech, he had to leave. Other than him, I didn't really get direct support from other faculties or from other people, but my father gave me a lot of useful advice. Now that I am established, and have RoMeLa running successfully, I try to help and support other new professors.
As observed in RoMeLa’s ChiMERA project, do you believe that biology and chemistry aspects will play important roles in mechanical and robotics engineering fields any time soon?
Robotics covers the whole spectrum, consisting of different feilds of studies. Let’s take the human body as an example. We have bones (mechanical structures), muscles (actuators), brains (computers), eyes, ears, etc. (sensors), and so on. It’s a combination of everything. The answer is yes, especially for robot actuators. Currently, motors and electronics are most commonly being used on robots, but these components do not simulate the real performance of human muscles or biological muscles. There are so many biologically-inspired robots in the world, so biology is also important.That’s why collaboration is important. In order to work as an engineer, you need to reach out to the chemists and biologists and people from other feilds.
What do you think the future holds for robotics and mechanical engineering? What about these robots in movies (such as Terminator and Transformers) – Will they be possible inventions in the near future?
Space travel was a subject of old Sci-Fi movies and novels, and now it’s reality. Regarding robotics, I think we are many years away from seeing a robot servant like those in the movie iRobot. Let’s talk about artificial intelligence. Although I’m not an AI expert, if we want to implement AI, we need to define what intelligence is and understand it first. We have very practical robots in our lives right now such as robot vacuum cleaners. I think that we will be seeing a lot more of these practical and single-purposed robots. However, talking about the science fiction of human-like machines, that act and perform basic human functions, will still take a lot of time. But we do have humanlike robots, too. One of the reasons we are doing research and development in humanoid robots is because we want to understand humans better. As an example of this concept, we study all sorts of human mechanics, mechanics that humans go through in their everyday lives. We believe that this will lead to the development of better prosthesis for example. Additionally, I believe the ultimate goal of robotics is to have robots live with us and help us in everyday tasks. In order for these robots to live among us and to help us, they need to live in an environment that is designed by humans for humans. For example, there is a good reason why the door handles are at a certain height. There’s a reason why steps of the stairs are at certain heights. For these robots to live in our environment, they need to be in human-form and size so that they can use what we use. That’s why we are trying to build humanoid robots.
What advice do you have for students who are graduating, and facing their career decisions?
One thing for sure is that education is important. A lot of students come to me during their senior years and ask me if they should apply for jobs or go to graduate schools. I always tell them that education is an investment. You are not wasting your money on it. Education always opens doors in ways that you might think otherwise. For example, you might not end up getting a job that’s related to your Ph.D thesis. Most of my friends who have Ph.D degrees have jobs that have nothing to do with their theses, which is perfectly fine because a Ph.D is like a license to do research. When a company hires a Ph.D, oftentimes they don’t really care what the person really did for their thesis. They believe in the qualities that make up Ph.D holders; they can do their own research and provide results.
Second advice is to attend as many conferences and meet as many people in different fields as possible. For example, I attend many technical conferences as often as I can. There are so many fascinating talks that are completely different from my field. and I learn a lot of interesting things from them.
How do you encourage your students to be innovative and creative?
Creativity is something that’s very difficult to teach. I don’t know how to teach creativity. What I do is hold monthly brainstorming sessions in our lab. These sessions are not formal classes. Anyone is welcome. I give the participants a central theme such as, ”the power source for robots.” However, before we start brainstorming sessions, I make this golden rule clear, which is that “nobody criticizes anybody’s ideas or opinions.” This is very important. It’s really interesting to see how those students really open up because they have the assurance that nobody’s going to attack their opinions. The whole room vibrates with creative energy.
Personally, there isn’t a single moment when I stop thinking - not in the shower or the cab ride to the airport. I’m always looking to evolve these thoughts and travel in new directions.In terms of leadership, I think the most important thing for a leader is to “love and care”. I care about my students dearly and about their learning.
How are the robotics industries different between the Asian and North American environments?
They are very different. In Japan and Korea, governments are pouring a lot of money in order to develop humanoid robot technology for people. For example, Japan is trying to develop Silver Robotics, which takes care of elderly people as their elderly population is growing so fast. In the US, we develop very practical robots. Funding is usually provided by the military and medical areas so robotics is being developed for those fields. Also, in the US, in the area of robotics in particular, more focus is given to fundamental basic research than applied ones.
What are the important qualities for engineers?
Mathematical skill is generally important, but written communication skill is another very important and overlooked asset. You need to have a good idea, a sound understanding of scientific principles and good writing skills to be able to communicate effectively. In addition, networking and people skills are also significant as you collaborate with other engineers.
What are the social responsibilities of engineers?
From an educator’s point of view, ethics is an important aspect and something that is very difficult to teach. In my classes, I show case studies of engineering disasters so that the students can visualize the failures and learn about their responsibilities as an engineer.
Making a positive contribution to the society is another important aspect. That is the objective of Blind Driver Challenge, giving hope to the blind about what technology can bring to their lives and inspiring other researchers to look into the problem of developing technology for the needed. This project is different than any other projects I worked on in a sense that it really clicked with the society. I am very active in this project. You will be hearing about this project all over the news soon.
What are your long-term goals?
Professionally, I think I’ve accomplished becoming one of the top researchers in the field of robotics. I have spent all my energy and passion in building the RoMeLa Empire, which is now very stable and continuing to gain momentum in its growth. My goal now is to become the world’s best dad and husband. I am also planning to create a spinoff company that produces products that will benefit our society.
What final advice do you have for young people?
Follow your dreams. If you look at successful people, they all followed their dreams. You really need to be passionate about your work. When you choose a job, don’t let salary be the only factor in your decision; you really need to enjoy your work. I’m one of many examples - I love what I do.
About Dr. Hong (Bio from RoMeLa's website)
Dennis Hong is an Associate Professor and the Director of RoMeLa (Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory) of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech.
His research expertise lies in the area of novel robot locomotion mechanisms, design and analysis of mechanical systems, kinematics and robot mechanism design, humanoid robots, and autonomous systems. He was the inventor of the three-legged walking robot ‘STriDER’ and the ‘whole skin locomotion’ inspired by amoeboid motility mechanisms, and pioneered in generating and utilizing everting motion and nutating motion for locomotion in soft body robots. His work on this area was awarded with the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation in 2007, Best Paper Award at the 13th International Conference on Advanced Robotics in 2007, and both the Biomimicry Award and the ASME Freudenstein / GM Young Investigator Award at the 29th ASME Mechanisms and Robotics Conference in 2005. He also won the Faculty Fellow Award in 2008, Outstanding Assistant Professor award in 2007 at the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, and was selected as a NASA Summer Faculty Fellow at JPL in 2005.
Dr. Hong is also very passionate about advising student design competition and robot competition teams. TEAM DARwIn for RoboCup 2007 (an international autonomous robot soccer competition) where he served as the advisor, was the first and only team from the United States ever to qualify for the RoboCup humanoid division, and TEAM Victor Tango for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge (an autonomous vehicle race in the urban environment) where he served as the co-team leader, won third place with a cash award of $500,000. In 2008, TEAM CIRCA won first place in the CAGI Innovation Awards design competition with a cash prize of $10,500, and his senior design teams have been winning top prizes year after year at various design competitions.
Dr. Hong received his B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1994), his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University (1999, 2002). Dr. Hong also has a number of patents for novel robot locomotion mechanisms and devices for medical applications.
He is also a serious gourmet chef and a magician performing annual charity magic shows and lectures on the science of magic.
Dr. Hong's RoMeLa talk at TEDxNASA
Interview Date : May 30, 2010
Interviewers: Yongsub Eric Shin, Jooseok Lee, Hyunwoo Lim
Photographer: Gerald Law
Editors: Phil Kim, Chris Heebum Lee, Minha Ha
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders' opinion. RoMeLa pictures were provided by Dr. Hong
Did you like the interview? We would like to know how we are doing!
"Follow The Leaders" project is an initiative that the JoinTheLeaders team has recently taken to deliver inspirational stories of successful Korean leaders in North America. In order for us to deliver the best message, we'd like to hear how we are doing. Please take a few minutes to fill out the feedback form for us to grow! Thank you for your time!
Please fill out "Follow The Leaders" Project Feedback Form
Interested in following more leaders and getting inspired?Join us todayfor this exciting project!