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[Industry 4.0] AI, robots in Korea after AlphaGo match

Historic human vs. AI match sparked interest in AI and robots, questions Korea’s competitiveness in future technology

A Go tournament in March between a Korean and an artificial intelligence software changed many things.

The computer program by Google’s DeepMind defeated the human at the game, proving that machines can in some ways be better than their creators and defying conventional thinking that upholds human intelligence. 

The impact of the event on Korean society was immense as it spread the message that machines could possibly surpass humans in other areas – and sooner than expected.

It also raised a big question: How far has Korea come in terms of developing AI technology and robots?

South Korea takes the lead in manufacturing IT gadgets from smartphones and computers to TVs. But skepticism persists on the country’s future growth particularly in the areas of AI and robots -- core elements projected to revolutionize the existing industrial environment.

According to a recent survey by Seoul Economic Daily, more than a half of 34 scientists rated 70 out of 100 points for Korea’s competitiveness and the level of technologies expected to open the new era of industries. New technological sectors include autonomous vehicles, AI, virtual reality, robots and biopharmaceuticals.

Korea lacked the most in the fields of AI, biophamaceutical and self-driving when compared with the technological competitiveness already achieved in advanced countries including the U.S.

But experts say that Korea, though a late starter, might still stand a chance.

“The U.S. is a leader in cloud computing and Japan is already providing services to humans by using robots like Pepper. Germany is also creating an environment to adopt next-generation technology to its manufacturing systems and China, with its massive capital and market, is rising high,” said Lee Sang-hoon, the president of ETRI in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

“But Korea has built one of the best infrastructures for information communication technology and Koreans’ digital connectivity could be a good material in developing the next-generation technology,” he said.

The government said Wednesday that it seeks to raise the number of AI-specialized companies from 100 in 2019 to 1,000 in 2026. Over the same period, it hopes to increase the number of professionals in this field from around 3,000 to 12,000, as part of its 2.2 trillion won ($2 billion) plan rolled out during a presidential meeting at Cheong Wa Dae.

Tech giants, telecom and IT firms also joined hands last month to develop AI technology, saying their mission is to create a Korean version of AlphaGo, which defeated Korean Go master Lee Se-dol.

A group of seven conglomerates including Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and SK Telecom jointly launched the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute by contributing 3 billion won each. The institute, which will also be funded by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning for a series of projects, has decided to develop an AI program for smooth communication with users.

Calling it “intelligent partnering technology,” the project is aimed at exchanging human knowledge on a particular subject with the AI program, similar to the AI software named Samantha that appeared in the Hollywood movie “Her.”

Future technologies could have an explosive impact on human lives if they are combined. AI software can process data and come up with optimized and logical strategies for men. By itself, it might not be able to replace human labor, but what if it is combined with a robot?

Zhang Byoung-tak, a computer science and engineering professor at Seoul National University, told the local magazine Sisapress that the fourth industrial revolution might really happen through the marriage of artificial science and robot technology.

Korea’s AI technology lags far behind Silicon Valley in the U.S., but the country still has a chance as it has high standards of technical skills in robots for manufacturing, said Zhang who has been developing a home robot to help working mothers.

“Korea now stands at the crossroads,” he said in an interview with Sisapress.

“Korea has taken a lead in the home appliances market around the world so far. But if it does not raise its competitiveness in robots, the country will lose its position in the consumer electronics market. Robots like Jibo and Pepper are, (after all), home appliances.”

By Cho Chung-un (