THE ROAD TO SUPERINTELLIGENCE
Interview with Peter Ho, Chief Executive Officer, HOPE Technik
Hollywood movies often show robots destroying cities or saving humanity. While our robots are currently still a long way from having such power, one thing is for sure – this is an exciting time to be in the robotics business.
A few years ago, a company, called Liquid Robotics, invented self-steering robots that patrol the seas – monitoring everything from vessel traffic to marine life. Just recently, a West Australian company announced that its prototype robot can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour and build the frame of an average house in less than two days. In the meantime, government agencies such as the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) continue to push the technological front with its recent Robotics Challenge, where a team from South Korea won US$2m when its robot smoothly completed a series of tasks, ranging from driving a buggy car on a road circuit to fixing a gas leak, in the shortest time possible.
While these technological breakthroughs are happening outside of Southeast Asia, many do not realise that Singapore has its very own homegrown robotics company that prides itself on being classed as traditional engineers, despite its focus on building modern, state-of-the-art robots.
“We are not in the business of simply being a theory engineer. We believe in being a traditional, hands-on engineer who can get our hands dirty being a part of the whole spectrum of the robotics creation process, starting from the analysis and planning part, right to the final manufacturing steps. This is the very essence of what HOPE Technik is about,” says Mr Peter Ho, Chief Executive Officer of the company.
Established in 2006, the privately-owned Singapore-registered engineering company provides complete engineering solutions to clients demanding high performance unique solutions, regardless of how unusual a project may be. With a number of major companies, such as AIRBUS Group and DELPHI, as its clientele, HOPE Technik expects to play a major role in the global robotics arena.
In his interview with Supply Chain Asia, Mr Ho discusses the challenges that emerging robots will bring, and the one traditional machine that he hopes to build someday.
The need for speed
Prior to his venture into HOPE Technik, Mr Ho studied Mechanical Engineering in the National University of Singapore and worked in the professional motorsports industry for ten years building racecars. It is during this stint that he was forced to quickly hone his skills to keep up with the expectations of competitive racing.
“Competitive engineering is probably the only industry in the world that requires you to design, build and ensure the machine performs without a hitch at a high level competition. Considering that the industry is usually occupied by rich teams with high monetary investments involved, it is typical for a chief engineer to lose his job in a few weeks if his racecar fails to perform,” says the former Petronas Touring Cars Chief Engineer.
In fact, although the founding members of HOPE Technik have different backgrounds, all of them were involved with motorsports at some point in their life. With his motorsports career forcing him to travel to as many as five countries each month, Mr Ho decided to opt for a less intense traveling lifestyle by settling in Singapore and starting HOPE Technik with his fellow co-founders.
Military stays ahead of the game
The company initially focused its robotics projects specifically for the military. However, three years ago, the management decided the time was right to take the declassified technology that they had worked on and develop it further for the industrial sector.
“We want to serve the industrial sector with actual robots, not automation. The big difference is that automation has a very fixed set of processes. Changing even the smallest step can require a massive engineering effort. Real robotics, on the other hand, gives you flexibility, and has a certain level of intelligence and sophistication that automation does not have,” explains the CEO.
Mr Ho believes that the company is well-equipped to meet the market’s requirements and demands. After all, while the industry is only recently excited by the use of drones, HOPE Technik has been working on drones for the past seven years. Back then, only the military could afford to buy such expensive equipment. The military’s demand for innovation means that they will always be one of the top clients for the company.
“Not only does the military have the budget to invest in sophisticated projects, they also have a unique demand which is very different from others. Compared to the industrial sector, the military takes much higher risks. A vendor can fail to create a final workable product, but the military will still consider the contract as fulfilled. For the military, they want to understand the problems and why things did not work. To them, the results of the failure are the answers they are looking for,” says Mr Ho, whose company will focus on mechatronics for Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative.
Bracing for the inevitable
Robots are already replacing labour in a big way. Midea, a major appliance maker, is using robots for its assembly line in the face of labour woes in China. With plans to spend up to CNY900m to add another 600 robots this year, its residential air-conditioning division aims to eventually cut 6,000 of its 30,000 workers by the end of 2015, and another 4,000 by 2018.
“A few years ago, return on investment was the main concern if one wants to go into robotics. Now, I think the industry knows that they need robotics due to labour shortage. For example, in Shanghai, generally people working in some parts of the logistics industry are not well paid, even though they are living in an expensive city. Due to this reason, many prefer to stay in the suburbs to experience a higher quality of life. This is why China is facing labour shortage in logistics. The industry finds it hard to increase the salary because the market is forcing logistics companies to drop their prices due to the decreasing value of each shipment, particularly in e-commerce. This is where robotics will come in,” says Mr Ho, who believes that the value of jobs in the logistics industry will soon change as workers need to manage robots.
For example, Port of Rotterdam is well known for its robotic container operations. Much of the container loading and stacking in the port is handled by autonomous robotic cranes and computer controlled chariots. Despite its status as one of the busiest port in the world, there are fewer than 100 employees working at the port.
“You can see the robots doing all the work while the workers simply sat and watched. I think with Singapore looking at creating a fully automated port by 2025, we can expect a similar scenario. I do not want to give a direct answer to the question of whether robots will replace us. But the fact is that a fully robotic system will be faster, provide better accountability, ensure higher efficiency and will ultimately be much cheaper to run than hiring humans,” explains the passionate CEO, who is betting on multifunction robots to be the next big thing in the industry.
Why we should worry about artificial intelligence
Mr Ho also thinks that sophisticated artificial intelligence will be at the forefront in a few years.
“We are already at the stage where there are computers that independently programme themselves. It was very scary when I first witnessed this. The computer was given a physics-related question that requires a complex understanding. What shocked me was that the computer figured out the answer in four hours while a 20-man team needed two and a half years. It figured out a method by itself, It could figure out in four hours by itself something that even Albert Einstein could not in his lifetime,” says Mr Ho.
He also added the ethical issues that need to be taken into consideration. While we can programme robots with Asimov’s Laws to ensure that they do not harm humans, it will be up to the robots to decide how to interpret those laws, just like in sci-fi movies such as I, Robot. It may lead to them deciding to harm certain groups of people to keep others safe.
“As a software programmer, what do you teach the computer to do? It is important to explore this fully because what we are going to write may accidentally kill somebody one day. Until we can answer these ethical questions, we have to be wary about artificial intelligence,” explains Mr Ho.
How it all started
Despite his love for high-end robots, there is one traditional machine that captured his attention since he was a child.
“I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer since I was six years old. I tried to build a replica of my mother’s antique sewing machine with a Lego set but I was not able to get the needle working. When I asked my father about it, he explained to me that I could make it work if I learnt mechanical engineering, and since that moment, I have never considered being anything else,” shares Mr Ho.
Perhaps it is his passion of creating things that makes him extremely open to sharing the world of mechanical engineering with others. For example, HOPE Technik takes in up to 40 interns yearly from different background.
“Our scholarship is not based on grades. We do not need interns who are top students. We believe that we should not allow someone to feel disadvantaged of having a career due to family or other circumstances. For us, we look at their attitudes, interests and commitment. We believe that success breeds success. Sometimes, they just need a break, such as an internship opportunity, and that can lead them to their dream,” explains the CEO.
But what about fulfilling Mr Ho’s childhood dream?
“I have not built a sewing machine yet,” he says with a chuckle. “I definitely hope to someday, perhaps before my retirement.”