South Korea is widely regarded as the most robot-friendly country in the world, with an even higher robot density (number of robots per 10,000 workers) than Japan. Not only is South Korea a heavy user of industrial automation and home to many advanced technology companies, but South Korean AI is also quietly becoming some of the most advanced artificial intelligence worldwide, with a direct focus on competing with more established Western systems.
The technology advancements of South Korea are worth keeping in mind as we observe the country extend its geopolitical influence. The recent Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and peace overtures between Seoul and Pyongyang are signs of South Korea’s efforts to be competitive on the world stage. Robotics and AI are a significant part of that strategy.
Two major government investments
In late 2016, South Korea’s Ministry of Science, Information and Computer Technology, and Future Planning announced that it will invest $1.9 billion over the next 10 years to establish new industries, including artificial intelligence. This came weeks after South Korea’s government unveiled they will invest $450 million over five years to fuel the robotics industry.
Early this year, the South Korean government announced their next round of investments, this time targeted at growing the country’s small and mid-sized robotics manufacturers, with the goal of turning industrial robotics into a $6.15 billion market by 2022.
With these continued moves, its clear that the government sees robotics and AI as the industry of the future, and is working to create a favorable environment to its success.
The competitiveness of South Korean AI
Similar to IBM Watson AI competing on Jeopardy, a South Korean artificial intelligence called “Exobrain” participated in a local quiz show (Janghak Quiz) and beat its human competitors (it racked up 510 points, beating the runner-up by 160 points).
The initial vision for Exobrain was none other than taking on IBM Watson, and with their victory on TV, they are clearly making progress towards this goal.
Also worth noting is that Exobrain won the grand prize of 25 million won (about $21,193). In the age of AI, who keeps the money — the AI, the company behind it, or someone else? How will governments deal with AI income when it comes to taxation?
The head of the Exobrain project said a commercial version of the software is in the works, and unlike IBM Watson, which is owned by IBM, Exobrain is a government-funded project. Seoul could make Exobrain open-source and allow people to take advantage of it, or create a Google-apps equivalent of artificial intelligence tools for people.
Another company has developed South Korean AI to take on IBM Watson. Saltlux Inc. unveiled a platform called “ADAMs.” According to the main engineer, ADAMs has the knowledge of 600,000 books and can answer 20 million questions.
Interestingly, while South Korean AI wants to take on IBM Watson in one area, it is partnering with IBM Watson in another area. SK C&C, a South Korean IT company, and IBM are developing AI products, one of which is a bilingual toy powered by artificial intelligence.
Naver, South Korea’s most popular internet search engine and an equivalent of Google, announced plans to invest $425.4 million over the course of five years in artificial intelligence and self-driving vehicles. It also plans to help people start new companies and create content. Is this South Korea’s push to develop a DeepMind equivalent through Naver, and was the loss in Go to Google’s AI the reason for this?
Robots soothe Seoul’s defense concerns
South Korean AI is also part of the country’s defense strategy. Officials stated that they want more collaboration with the U.S. in robotics to thwart threats to South Korea’s national security (primarily from North Korea). Worth noting is that robotics was mentioned in the talks, which points to the possibility of more collaboration between the two countries in developing military robotics, autonomous robots, and more.
South Korea has deployed semi-autonomous sentries, developed by Samsung, on the DMZ with North Korea, which use AI to determine if passers-by are friendly security officers or enemies. It’s likely that AI will play an even larger role in the future of the country’s defense, as continued demographic trends put pressure on South Korea’s defense forces.
Will South Korean AI maintain its momentum?
While South Korea AI has clear momentum, it’s worth noting that most of these systems lag behind those of the US and other world leaders in terms of their capabilities. However, with the continued government investment into South Korean AI development, this gap will almost certainly begin to close before long.
South Korea has long proven that it’s a dominant force in the robotics world, one that embraces technological innovation readily, and is culturally open to non-human interactions. With this in mind, it seems all too likely that the nation will not simply maintain their position of leadership in industrial robotics, but will turn South Korean AI into a global force as well.