During the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korean Robot Reflect the Geopolitics of Technology

February 20, 2018      

The PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games are well under way. The Olympics are about more than athletes winning gold, silver, or bronze medals. For the host nation, the games are a way to show off the future of its soft power, economic power, and geopolitical power — through South Korean robot demonstrations.

Before the 2018 Winter Olympics began, South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said that 85 robots spanning 11 different categories would be used during the games. Most, if not all, of them come from Korean robotics companies.

The ministry has been planning to show off automation and related technologies for at least two years, and it has supported eight Korean robot companies with $2 million.

The South Korean robots serve two purposes. First, they helped with Olympics operations. For example, robots have been used for cleaning, delivering goods, and fishing at Pyeongchang, Gangneung, and Jeongseon.

Meanwhile, robot vacuum cleaners and robot guides are at airports, stadiums, and other event venues, directing people, answering questions, and translating where required. Some are also drawing murals, making them semi-artists.

This spectacle may distract observers from another fact: People would have conducted many of these tasks in the past. Automation is a major geopolitical variable. As people lose their jobs or fear losing their jobs, they may protest, change their political allegiances, and otherwise support policies such as South Korean robot taxes.

Perhaps robots are more efficient for cleaning floors, but the 85 Korean robot “volunteers” could be a harbinger for future sporting events. How will their use and reception influence the debate about automation and jobs?

South Korean robot prowess grows

The second purpose of the Olympics is to show off South Korea’s robot capabilities. For the past few years, the country has made automation part of its strategy to establish itself as a leader in the fourth industrial revolution. Its population is tech-friendly, and it has worked to be less reliant on neighbors and trade partners Japan and China as both a producer and user of robots.

South Korea produced 4.475 trillion won ($4.11 billion) worth of robots in 2016, with both imports and exports continuing to increase, according to the Korea Association of Robot Industry.

In late 2016, South Korea’s Trade Ministry said it would invest $5.8 billion (U.S.) over five years in 12 key sectors, including robotics and autonomous vehicles. It also planned to review industry regulations.

Last year, the South Korean government planned to start spending $3.4 billion over five years to “secure intellectual property rights” and establish an “IP Desk” for competitiveness.

Robot skiers are the products of a competition, again showing South Korea’s research and industrial capabilities.

South Korea robot displays at the Olympics were also an opportunity to highlight international trade. Intel’s Shooting Star unmanned aerial systems (UAS) flew in a record-setting formation, although the displays of a snowboarder and the Olympic rings were actually recorded¬†before the opening ceremony because of high winds and safety concerns.

Robots may be the star athletes and winners at the Olympics, even when it comes to transportation. Self-driving buses developed by KT, the largest telecommunications firm in the country, are ferrying athletes around the hockey and skating competitions in Gangneung.

Korean robots, drones, and security

During the torch relay ceremony, HUBO become the second torchbearer. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) developed the humanoid robot, which won the final DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015.

KAIST is also providing drone security at the games. If the drones spot a threat, they will rely on a radar system developed by KAIST to track it. The drones themselves are equipped with nets that they can deploy to catch the troublemakers. (Police are using different robots to detect explosives.)

The METHOD-2 (which is in South Korea but not at the games) looks like something from science fiction — a rideable or wearable heavy mech or exosuit, with bipedal locomotion and arms and hands that could be useful for combing through rubble, moving cargo, or mechanized warfare. The robot is on sale for about 10 million won ($8.3 million).

However, the biggest security threats aren’t in the air but in cyberspace. During the opening ceremony, the games’ official website was shut down, drones used by media were taken offline, and Internet access was turned off in certain locations.

This wasn’t an impulsive attack — it had been in preparation for over a year. The game’s organizers have confirmed that a cyberattack took place during the opening ceremony but have not said from where. Some rumors point to Russia or North Korea.

Increasing artificial intelligence research and cybersecurity countermeasures will no doubt be national security priorities for many who have learned from watching this winter’s games.

Korean robots are serving the attendees of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Major locations for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

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Olympics provide preview of future power

Given the tensions on the long-divided Korean peninsula, it’s no surprise that the 2018 Winter Olympic Games puts a spotlight on technology and geopolitics. As a geopolitical futurist, the games reflect a new reality in which national interests are pursued through both public robotics demonstrations and secret cyberattacks.

Ten or 15 years ago, such hacking involving state actors would have seemed unlikely, but now, it has become commonplace. South Korean robots show the country’s confidence and educational and economic strength, just as the communications blackouts show vulnerabilities that exist everywhere.

Every time attendees, spectators, or competitors see or interact with robots during the Olympics, they’re not just interacting with technology — they’re also receiving or relaying a very calculated geopolitical message.