They’re 10 powerful reasons to look on the bright side. Take materials scientist Ting Xu. She’s using nanotechnology to craft solar cells that are more energy-efficient and eco-friendly than oil or coal. John Rinn is unlocking the secrets of RNA to keep us healthier, a vital step toward solving our health-care woes. Jerome Lynch is making smart sensors for bridges that spot structural flaws before disaster strikes. And not one of these geniuses is over 40. The world is facing some pretty big problems, we admit, but with these talented minds tackling them, can you blame us for feeling hopeful?
Name: Dennis Hong
Affiliation: Virginia Tech
In 1977, a six-year-old boy visiting Los Angeles from South Korea saw Star Wars for the first time. He gaped at the curious locomotion of R2-D2 and the human-robot interactions of C-3PO, and as he flew back home, Dennis Hong remembers, “I knew I was going to build robots for the rest of my life.”
Hong was born in California, but when he was three, his father, an aerospace engineer, moved the family to Seoul for a job. Hong lived there until his sophomore year of college, when he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, and went on to grad school at Purdue University. “All of it was mechanical engineering, focused on robotics,” he says.
Today, Hong runs Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, which has produced a robotic hand that’s dexterous enough to handle an egg, a pole-climbing snake ’bot for construction inspections, and a momentum-propelled, three-legged robot, among other projects.
“When I joined VT, people thought robotics should be all about intelligence,” Hong says. Instead, he chose to focus on mechanical systems found in nature. “We’re not copying nature; we’re using its principles,” he explains. The design of the three-legged robot, for instance, looks unnatural, yet it mimics the momentum of the human gait. To move forward, its hub flips over, causing one leg to swing between the other two. The robotic hand is controlled by compressed air, varying the strength of its grip without the use of other motors, in the same way human grip relies on elastic ligaments to help the fingers curl.
His lab’s latest effort is a humanoid called CHARLI, for Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence. It serves as a research platform for the study of human locomotion and a contender in Robocup 2010, a tournament in which robots compete in soccer matches.
Ultimately, Hong hopes to engineer robots that move with the grace and adaptability of humans. The key, he believes, is uninhibited research. In Korea, Hong recalls, “I grew up in an environment of people being afraid or ashamed to speak up. In my lab there’s no criticism, only refinement. You want to put a nuclear reactor in your robot? Fine, let’s pursue that.”
Leading by example, Hong has an organized way of putting his own least-inhibited ideas to use. “Next to my bed, I have a notebook and a pen,” he says. “Every night, I see lines, colorful things in my head. I wake up at 4 a.m., jot down everything. In the morning, I type it into my database of ideas. When funders want this or that, I look for a match.” —Jacob Wardsingle page