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Meet the Vietnamese man who builds robots on US soil

Saturday, February 11, 2017, 15:01 GMT+7

Vu Duy Thuc, a Stanford-trained computer scientist, has been sought after by American media since his introduction of a robot designed to keep lonely seniors company.

Thuc is a popular name among the Vietnamese students community in the U.S., renowned as one who has achieved both academic and entrepreneurial success on foreign soils.

Graduating with full scores (4/4) from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and an Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers Award presented by the Computing Research Association, Thuc was offered full doctoral scholarships at top U.S. universities including MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley.

Earning his PhD in computer science at Stanford at the age of 28 makes Thuc the youngest Vietnamese ever to have finished doctoral program at the university, but it was just the beginning of his business ventures in the U.S.

Having lived in the U.S. for a long time, Thuc noticed how more than 70 percent of the country’s 44 million seniors above 65 live alone, without the companion of their children or relatives.

“There’s a huge senior population, but isolation and loneliness is still common,” he told U.S. daily New York Times. “And we’re also running out of caregivers, since most of them are getting older.”

Drawing from his own experience of homesickness as an exchange student, Thuc realized the need for a means of keeping in contact with families, friends and relatives from a great distance.

“Devices and applications such as smartphone, laptop, Skype and FaceTime have their limitations,” Thuc said of the difference between his companion robot Ohmni and other available long-distance real-time communication methods.

Ohmni, developed by Thuc co-founded technological startup OhmniLabs, was designed to be light and require limited computer knowledge to operate, making it especially elder-friendly.

The robot has a screen as its head and a webcam for making video calls, and scuttles around on wheels, allowing users to make uninterrupted phone calls as they go on with their daily activities.

“It’s connected to Wi-Fi and can be operated remotely by the person on the other end of the call,” Duy explained. “Senior users are spared from even such physical operations as turning it on and off or recharging the robot.”

The beta version of Ohmni was launched six months ago to positive feedback from both local media and customers.

Thuc is looking to make an official launch of the robot in U.S. and Japanese markets in the next few months at prices between US$1,500 and $2,000.

In the near future, Thuc’s company will be working on training the robot to pick up objects, wash dishes, do laundry and clean the house, the young robotics enthusiast said.

“I also hope to introduce the product to Vietnam some time soon, especially robots integrated with remote health checkup capability to help those living in remote areas where medical facilities are less developed,” Thuc said.

The young CEO said his path to the initial success with OhmniLabs had not always been smooth sailing, as he and his colleagues had failed more times than he could count.

Thuc’s optimistic outlook on failure has helped him back up every time, as he believes building a startup is all about innovating and breaking with tradition to bring about change.

“When you break with tradition, you’re bound to be faced with difficulties and problems,” Thuc explained, adding that he had learned something new for every failure on the way.

Since 2012, Thuc has been working as assistant professor and research scientist at the John von Neumann Institute, Vietnam National University - Ho Chi Minh City.

Though busy with his jobs as CEO and teaching job, Thuc has dedicated a portion of his time and money to run a foundation focused on helping well-performing students in Vietnam with a poor background.

Thuc’s foundation has so far presented hundreds of scholarships to such students, at the value of $4,000 each.

Thuc said it was a way for him to pay it forward, as he had received financial support from many people during his time in school.

Education is the best platform into life, he said, and knowledge is the strongest guarantee of a better future regardless of one’s starting point.

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