Interview: Robert Cheek, Director Biz Dev at Yujin Robot, South Korea

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Lately GoCart, a service robot from the vault of Yujin Robot Innovation Team, South Korea has hit the headlines across the globe. The bot opens up a new level of human-machine interaction where the machine will replace people in doing the everyday mundane and heavy piles of monotonous tasks, thus leaving the humans to provide emotional support, a task, which a machine can never accomplish. In order to get more in-depth analysis of the robot and its future implications, we tried to get in touch with Robert Cheek, Director Business Development at Yujin Robot. Although tied up with is professional commitments, Robert managed to squeeze out some time in collaborating with us in form of a rendezvous, so without much ado, please find his interview below,

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TechieTonics: Would you please tell us more about your background, and your experience with technology platforms across countries you have worked, like Amsterdam, Sunnyvale, Berlin Area and Seoul? 

Robert Cheek: Wow, I could carry on for some time about this topic, as I worked in very different areas in terms of technology platforms. I shall, however, keep my answer brief.

I started my career as a professional musician, worked on remixes, toured in cover bands, and played ‘raves’ and clubs in the 1990s. I think the fusion of technology and art appealed to me then and drew me to the electronic music genre.

I moved to Amsterdam a couple of days after receiving my BA from the University of Florida (go Gators!) with maybe two pair of jeans, tee shirts, a computer, and a synthesizer. My goal at the time was to get in the creative media business in Amsterdam. After a few months of working odd jobs and random gigs, I established a small interactive media company, at which I was the sound designer and composer. The partnership eventually unraveled as demand (or more importantly when trying to buy groceries–pay) for sound design in the early 2000s was tepid, to put it mildly. I was often paid for projects with merchandise–which I liked, but found hard to convert into other goods and services, while my partner was mostly paid in hard cash–she was the visual designer, and most clients back then thought this was the more important element of interactive media. The situation was unsustainable in terms of operating a business partnership and so we ended up parting ways.

Shortly after leaving Amsterdam, I returned to the US, where I secured a position in the trade business in Sunnyvale (Silicon Valley). There I worked supplying components to companies such as Apple, Nintendo, Intel, and AMD. It was interesting, but not really my cup of tea, so I decided to make a move after a couple of years in the business.

My next stop was Seoul, where I initially went to study Korean language and culture. I’d focused on Asian studies in school, but there were gaps in my education, and I wanted to fill them, hence my move. Shortly after relocating, I was recruited by Hyundai’s investment bank, where I worked in research for some time before being scouted by another investment bank. I worked in the research department of the other bank for about seven years, doing my part to grow it to one of Korea’s leading investment banks. Then I got the seven-year itch, so to speak, and felt it time to broaden my horizons and get into something with more of an edge.

That brought me to work for a game content, e-sports, and broadcasting company, where I was responsible for laying the groundwork for all operations and securing funding from investors. The result of my work is a streaming television platform for gaming. While building this business for a London-based private equity company, I was tasked with securing seed funds to launch another e-sports organization. My role in that organization was only to secure seed money, which I did. I then worked on building an the online payment service for anothe group company, which I named, branded and launched, and then handed off to a manager for day-to-day operations.

Following the successful funding for the establishment and launch of the broadcaster, where I worked in promoting League of Legends and expanded the e-sports buisness.

I was then tasked by Sapinda to work with another group company, which published mobile games, apps, educational content, and online games. During my stint there,I was fortunate to work with Minh Le, the creator of Counterstrike to publish the sequel, Tactical Intervention, which we launched on the Steam platform. I also worked with LG Electronics for the distribution of the LG Kidspad tablet in Russia/CIS and to secure licenses for content development.

Following my two-year stint with Sapinda-backed companies, I decided it was time to do something completely different. I’d done mobile games, apps, online games, and broadcasting, and now it was time to do…robots!. So when I saw the opportunity to build a new business for an established robotics company, I jumped. Robotics, as a business is hard–sorry for the pun. You have to ensure that moving hardware and software integrate seamlessly, it cannot easily be changed once in motion. And it is expensive to build robots–there’s little to no room for error. My mandate is to determine to the business direction for Yujin Robot so that I can ensure the company’s growth and profitability going forward. And the first item is GoCart–an affordable autonomous meal transport system for elderly care facilities.

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TechieTonics: Yujinrobot’s Service robots, R&D platforms, Industrial robots, all have one thing in common, the idea of localization and navigation. Does that mean that the machines are reconciling with the idea of navigation being the future or intelligence (AI) being the future? 

Robert Cheek: In the robotics industry there are three companies that do indoor navigation systems–all of them Korean. LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, and Yujin Robot. While Yujin is very focused on leveraging our core technology, we do see a place for AI and navigation working in concert. I envision a system that utilizes navigation so that robots can find their way around semi-structured environments, but integrate AI to make better choices when faced with unanticipated situations.

TechieTonics: If we talk about cleaning robots, since everything is converging onto a single machine, be it sweeping, mopping and vacuuming.  So I am curious to know your thoughts on future home cleaning bots, whether a single robust robot would be fabricated to perform the multitasking or self-assembling modular robots would come into the picture? 

Robert Cheek: In the short-term, you will see many functions that several household appliances handle. I foresee several products coming on the market that will have multiple features integrated.

In the long-term (meaning five-ten years), demand and cost will drive the development of several robust robots that can carry out multiple functions. Part of this development drive will be the result of the increasingly reddening ocean that the cleaning robot space is becoming. Major players with deep pockets, such as LG, Samsung, iRobot, as well as the flood of cheap, low-tech cleaning robots coming from small- to midsize players around the world will compel participants to create game-changing cleaning robots. Those that do not will leave the market or collapse under the pressure.

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TechieTonics: On parameters like safety, ethics, and economics in human environments how would you rate GoCart? 

Robert Cheek: Safety was and remains the number one concern when designing GoCart. Without safety as the driving principle behind the design and construction of GoCart, there would be no way to commence testing. In terms of ethics. I see, and this is reflected in the promo video, that the world’s elderly care facilities are already short-staffed, leaving less time to care for residents, and what’s even more disturbing is that we are finding a rise in the number of elderly abuse cases worldwide . The GoCart system will put an end to this and allow caregivers to focus on care, rather than being overtasked with mundane tasks. I have been asked more times that I can remember about the robots taking out the care in caregiving. My answer to this question is very simple. Think about a toaster, why would anyone stand over the stove and put bread in one of those things that our great grandparents used to use, when they can drop the bread in a machine and press a lever. Or, referring to the promo video again, a washing machine. This is what GoCart is, a labour-saving technology, with tremendous benefits for business, governments, and residents.

TechieTonics: Many people argue that jobs are likely to be displaced with the coming of service robots, what’s your take on that? 

Robert Cheek: This is absolutely on the mark. And the displacement is already happening, hence the jobless economic recovery and stagnation of  wages when adjusted for inflation. As the steam engine, automobile, and computer all completely altered the economic landscape, so, too, will service robots. And the technological development is happening at a far faster rate than anyone could have imaged, even a decade ago.

To prepare for the shift, governments must build social safety nets for the disruptions–and they need to do this now.

TechieTonics: Do you support the notion of biomimicry that is, mimicking animals to get not only good design but also smarter simulated intelligence? 

Robert Cheek: Absolutely. What better models do we have to develop and improve on emulate and enhance in terms of simulated intelligence. We dubbed our new series of robots Gopher, as they work work well independently and in groups. Not biomimicry in the strict sense, but the spirit of it is there. I preferred to call the line Mule, in part for the flexibility and dexterity of the animal when it comes to transporting goods (and its also the name of my favorite videogame of all time).

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TechieTonics: High-speed broadband, widescreen televisions, smartphones, semiconductors, sensors, and auto manufacturing, South Korea is taking up the world in terms of future technologies. Talking on same line of thought, I’d love to hear your vision with respect to the cultural fascination with automated machines? 

Robert Cheek: South Korea’s fascination with technology extends to automated machines for several reasons, I believe. First, society is very comfortable with tech, and indeed wear it as a point of pride. Second, there is a need to develop technologies such as automated machines as South Korea, like Japan, is greying at an historically unprecedented rate that will, if not addressed, become a national crisis within the decade. Automated machines/robots and other technologies are the solution. Third, pop culture, e.g. anime and manga, have enculturated South Koreans, like their Japanese and Chinese neighbors, to the idea of robots being part of normal life.

TechieTonics: I understand that currently the priority of Yujin Robot is the deployment of GoCart in health care institutions. Except for this, what are the upcoming projects / products that we might anticipate from the vault of Yujin Robot Innovation Team? 

Robert Cheek: I foresee variants of GoCart being extended to other applications. I am also exploring ways to disrupt the marketing space, and am in talks with some influential players in the media and consumer spaces about this endeavor. What I can say is that it’d be something like you’d never seen before–a complete shift in how you think about advertising. It was my desire to build this business first, but limited resources and immediate market demand  dictated my decision to focus on autonomous meal transport system for elderly care facilities.

You will probably also see some interesting developments in the area of smart buildings getting smarter. Like an elevator can move people and things up and down, an automated system to move other things around a building–beyond up and down, autonomously.

TechieTonics: What is the most rewarding or exciting part of being into the crew of one of the most innovative team in robotics? What is the most difficult? 

Robert Cheek: Thank you for the compliment. The most rewarding part of being in the crew is that finding ways to help people by taking our combined knowledge, fusing it with great technology, and then developing amazing new technologies that we find a commercial application for.

Probably the most difficult thing is that I do not see my family very much and sleep can be a rare commodity.

TechieTonics: Any words of wisdom, you’d like to shed before wrapping up? 

Robert Cheek: Technical challenges are just that–challenges. When you have a vision and you see how it works, i.e. how the pieces of the puzzle fit, then go after it. Don’t let naysayers tell you it cannot be done or why it is difficult. Look beyond the spec sheet.

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Rapid fire round: 

TT: What websites and magazines do you read on a regular basis?

RC: RoboHub, The Guardian, The Economist, and Marketwatch.

TT: Your favorite piece of music would be?

RC: Wow, that has to be the toughest question of the lot. I like almost every genre and so many artists. I’m huge on blues, jazz, and classical–traditional and modern. But if I were to say there is one song that I play to get me going–it’d have to be Reach for the Sky by Social Distortion.

TT: If you had to walk in another man’s shoes for a day, it would have to be?

RC: Richard Branson. He knows how to build businesses, disrupt the status quo, and have fun while doing it.

TT: If you have been bestowed with one super power, it would be?

RC: Time travel, definitely. There’s just so much you could do.

TT: If you were a historical person, it would have to be?

RC: Neil Armstrong. Can’t think of anything cooler than being the first human being to set foot on the surface of a planetary body beyond the earth.

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Robert this has been a real pleasure! I can’t thank you enough on behalf of myself and the team for taking the time to sit with us today and enable us to learn more about you and your career. Please know that you are welcome back any time and we look forward to visiting with you again and seeing much more of your work in the future. Wish you all the very best for all your future endeavors.

About Pooja Kashyap

Pooja Kashyap likes reading and writing on topics related to scientific research and technology. Located in New Delhi, she also enjoys reviewing books and taking interviews of creative/innovative people. She is also on Google Plus l Quora l Twitter or LinkedIn.