Robots at the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics are over. They had their share of heartbreaks and triumphs, surprises and excitement, and winter sports fans are still savoring their favorite moments.

It’s also now time to determine whether South Korea’s side focus on robots paid off.

85 robots were among the workers at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. They delivered water to bystanders, painted walls, and acted as guides. They vacuumed hallways, distributed snacks, and — in some cases — swam in tanks in the guise of bright colored fish.

11 different models of robots took part in the event. They ranged from readily-identifiable fish to white tiger creatures to humanoid robots like Hubo.  Hubo even carried the Olympic torch for about 150 feet.

Oh Jun-Ho, the maker of Hubo, initially refused to build robots for the Olympics. The government, he explained, wanted to showcase South Korea’s robots, but the robots produced for the Olympics were largely for show. Jon-Ho explained that robots created for films or exhibits can be programmed to imitate intelligence. That doesn’t mean that they really are intelligent.

“They can imitate human emotion or intelligence but that does not mean that they’re intelligent,” Jun-Ho told interviewers from Al-Jazeera. “You project your imagination into the machine. This machine makes believe it’s intelligent… They can imitate very high level of intelligence and communication. But that’s just imitating. They can interpret with the help of words in different languages but they don’t understand, they’re just matching from their vast database.”

Human beings, he explained, interpret what they see as personality or intelligence, but that’s just projection. It says more about how human brains work than it does about the prowess of the robots.

Jun-Ho, the father of humanoid robotics in South Korea, eventually agreed to help build the torch-carrying Hubo bot. Other local makers created other types of robots as well.

If the goal was to draw attention to South Korea’s robotics industry, though, it seems like a success. As Jun-Ho put it, “They looked good.”

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