Profile of Dr. Paul Oh
Robots may once have been reserved for the world of science fiction, but they exist among us now and, more quickly than we realize, are becoming a more prevalent and vital part of our society. Today, around the globe, there are robots that dismantle bombs, aid surgeons and even fight wars.
Dr. Paul Oh is among those pioneering the next wave of robotics in this country. Oh is currently an Associate Professor and serves as the interim head at Drexel University’s Mechanical Engineering Department. He is also the founder and Director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab (DASL). When he isn’t teaching in the classroom or managing a lab, Oh lends his expertise to prominent organizations such as NASA, The Boeing Company and most recently, the National Science Foundation where he served as the Program Director for Robotics in the Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE) from 2008 to 2010.
“Everyone has a preconceived notion of what a robot is,” Oh said. “Everyone will draw something that’s very similar to each other. If you ask a lay person, they’ll say something like, ‘It’s an assistant, something that does what I want it to do.’”
But for leading experts in the field, like Oh, that’s not enough.
“We’re striving for an intelligent machine that can truly exist with people as a cooperative agent – a co-worker on factory floor, co-defender for national security, co-laborer in the field doing rescue work, or co-caretaker assisting elderly, or co-educator for teaching children,” said Oh. “When the humanoids can creatively express themselves through dance or play music in a jazz quartet, and you cannot distinguish if it’s a human doing this or a machine, then I’ve succeeded.”
Existing state of the art humanoid robots are already capable of walking, running and climbing stairs. Some can even ride devices like bicycles or play musical instruments. But according to Oh, it takes far more to truly become a representation of who we are.
“We must go beyond the mechanics to give the humanoids artificial intelligence,” Oh said. “If you ask psychologists, you’re told ‘creativity is the hallmark of intelligence.’”
Despite the increasing integration of robots into the daily lives of individuals, the study of robotics, nonetheless, remains an esoteric, sometimes fanciful concept. Indeed, the art of working in a field that attempts each day to dream up something new, to design what had only been imagined, takes a certain degree of resistance to mainstream thought and a resolve rooted in a cause greater than oneself.
Oh is fueled by a commanding respect for science, a powerful imagination, and a conviction that robots offer tremendous potential for improving our world.
Paving the way
Oh was born in Philadelphia in 1966 to parents who immigrated to the United States for graduate school. At this time, there were less than 70,000 Koreans in the entire country. Soon after, Oh’s family moved to Kentucky, and then in 1968, Oh’s father got a faculty position and the family moved again – to Montreal, Canada. Although the relocation was just to his home country’s northern neighbor, from Oh’s point of view, he might as well have been halfway around the globe.
“Overnight, we moved to French-speaking city,” Oh said. “There weren’t a lot of Koreans at the time,” Oh reflects. “People definitely didn’t know what Korea was. Some knew about Chinese and Japanese, but not Koreans.”
Oh was enrolled in an English school system, but went to French school to learn the language and is now fluent. While Oh’s series of moves led him to cities where Koreans were uncommon, he wasn’t concerned by the ways he was “different” than his peers. In fact, he embraced it.
“I was nurtured to be proud of my Korean heritage,” Oh said. “Others might have felt put down or isolated, but I thrived on being unique.”
Oh remained in Montreal through college, graduating with honors from McGill University in Montreal with a bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering in May 1989. Upon graduation, he seized the opportunity to go to Korea for six months on a graduate fellowship. At the time Oh said he was not planning to pursue a PhD – rather, it was an opportunity to see his parents’ native country for the first time, an offer that came with a free airplane ticket, a stipend, and language classes.
Even though Oh knew he was going to be in Korea for an extended period of time, he wasn’t prepared for the culture shock that would hit him upon landing.
“The idea that you land in Seoul and there are Koreans driving the bus, working at the airport, on the news – I had never seen Koreans in that context before,” Oh said.
That fact that Oh only knew how to say three things in Korean when he first arrived — hello, thank you and good bye – didn’t help with the transition, but, Oh’s previous life experience had prepared him for this kind of strain.
“I always grew up in an environment where the language is different from my mother tongue,” Oh said. “So I didn’t let it faze me.”
What was intended to be a six-month stint in Korea ended up lasting four years. Early on during his time in Korea, Oh determined he wanted to pursue a PhD and strategically decided to prolong his time in Korea.
Living in Korea served as a window into the broader world. It allowed him to expand his worldview in ways that living in the United States could not. During his years in Korea, Oh saw the Berlin Wall fall, followed the first Gulf War, monitored the Tiananmen Square protests, and watched as Japan’s economy surged – monumental global events that not only revealed the vast world around him, but also the spectrum of views the world held of the United States.
“I was exposed to new media that wasn’t just the American perspective,” Oh said. “I saw a lot of people criticizing America, especially in terms of manufacturing. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, it seemed like everything great was made in Japan and U.S. products were terrible.”
Oh was deeply influenced by the excellence of Japanese manufacturing and he used his time in Korea to strengthen his Korean language skills, continue his education and gain valuable experience by working as a research engineer at corporate giants such as Hyundai Motor Co. and Daewoo Heavy Industries – all strategic decisions he felt would enhance his abilities as a researcher and an academic.
“Going to school is one thing, but I knew I had to go into the workforce,” Oh said. “I wanted to know how the everyday businessman thinks.”
Achieving the dream
Armed with global business experience, new perspectives on manufacturing and a Masters of Science in Mechanical Design and Production Engineering from Seoul National University, Oh return to the United States and moved to New York City in 1993 to begin his PhD studies in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. Upon graduation, he began his teaching career as an adjunct professor at Columbia before moving to Drexel University’s Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics Department in 2000 where he continues to work today.
In his 12 years at Drexel, Oh has established himself as a strong advocate for and pioneer in expanding the field of mechanical engineering and robots. In addition to teaching courses in Mechatronics and Freshman Design, Oh is the director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory (DASL). Under his leadership, the lab has produced projects ranging from unmanned aerial/ground vehicle applications to humanoid robotics. This multidisciplinary environment, which consists of students from the freshman level to PhD candidates, enables collaboration across a range of departments including Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, and even Psychology.
He is also the founding chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Technical Committee on Aerial Robotics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). This committee promotes exchange among researchers from academia, industry and government in an effort to identify technologies that advance the field of aerial robotics.
Profoundly influenced by the insights gained by studying and working abroad, Oh established a humanoid program at Drexel in October 2007 that would send students to the very place where his own worldview were broadened – Korea. With globalization on the rise and the competitive advantages that come from working in different cultures, Oh felt it was important to give students a chance to extend their education by going abroad. Through this program, which is sponsored under the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, American students are sent to live in Korea for six months while working alongside and learning from leading robotics researchers and academics at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
“When I started this program, I didn’t really know if Americans would want to go to Korea, but when my students were offered the opportunity to work on humanoids, I had an overwhelming response,” said Oh.
The interest was so great that he started implementing some demanding prerequisites to apply for this program, like taking three semesters of Korean while maintaining a B+ or higher and, on a lighter note, going to a Korean restaurant with Oh and successfully ordering in Korean.
To date, Oh has sent 10 students, all of whom are not of Korean heritage, to Korea on this program.
It’s this kind of personal investment and creative teaching methods that has earned Oh such admiration from his students. Oh was awarded the Drexel College of Engineering Teaching Excellence Award in 2006 and the SAE Ralph R. Teetor Engineering Education Award (Aerospace) in 2007.
These innovative programs are just a few examples of the passion and creativity that Oh brings to his field. Throughout his years of training, the diverse array of his personal and professional experiences has enhanced his role as a teacher, researcher, and engineer.
But the role Oh identifies with most is being a mentor. Whether it’s in the classroom, research lab, or a conference hall, Oh embraces the opportunity to practice a type of mentorship that strives to help people understand their role in this larger world.
“I want people to see what the big picture is – and to help them define what their dream is,” Oh said. “I do that with all my students and my goal is to get them excited about the big world out there.”
Paul Oh lives in Blue Bell, PA with his wife, Jennifer and their 2 daughters.