Robots that mix cocktails, teach children programming, care for the elderly and work alongside humans in factories and warehouses were on display this week in Seoul at an industry trade show.
Hundreds of vendors from South Korea’s growing robotics industry peddled futuristic devices that ranged from simple toys and educational kits to industrial robotic arms and autonomous delivery robots at Robotworld 2019, a four-day event organized by the Korea Association of Robot industry. The event concluded Saturday.
While the robots came in all shapes and sizes, one major theme emerged: They are here to help us, not replace us.
“The future is humans and robots working together,” said Kim Eun-chong, an engineer with Doosan Robotics, a leading manufacturer of “cobots,” or collaborative robots.
These programmable robots can be used for tasks ranging from assembly lines to service-oriented jobs such as kitchen work, operating alongside people while handling precise and repetitive movements.
“Many people think that robots will take their jobs,” said Kim In-jung, manager of the strategy and planning team at the Korea Association of Robot Industry. “But they can work together in service areas, and the robotics industry will also create new jobs.”
A June report from Oxford Economics highlights both the disruption and possibilities of robotics in the labor market. The study, How Robots Change the World, projects that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world could be replaced by robots by 2030, with each new robot erasing 1.6 jobs.
Around 1.7 million manufacturing jobs have been lost to robots since 2000, the report said.
However, the study also found that robots could contribute an additional $5 trillion to global GDP, which would potentially create new employment opportunities at the same rate that jobs are lost.
“A problem is that manufacturing and service industry workers are getting old in developed countries,” Kim said. “Robots can help aging workers in a number of areas.”
The KAR set up a demonstration pavilion showing off Doosan’s industrial cobots working alongside humans in service tasks that included mixing drinks, scooping popcorn, operating DJ turntables and even shampooing hair at a salon.
South Korea in particular is on the cusp of a steep demographic decline, with one of the world’s lowest fertility rates and a population that could be the world’s grayest in the coming decades. According to a Statistics Korea projection, 46 percent of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2065.
Perhaps not surprisingly, several other robots on display were meant to help address the aging society.
A company called Robocare was showing off Silbot, a robot with a tablet computer-like face that displays human expressions. It’s being used to help prevent dementia in the elderly through interactive training sessions that involve copying Silbot’s movements, solving puzzles and playing memory games.
Robocare engineer Yoo Byung-hyun said Silbot is being used in 25 clinics and senior centers around South Korea.
Another robot to help address South Korea’s changing society is Pibo, a 15-inch-tall companion robot created by South Korean startup Circulus.
“There are more and more one-person households in Korea, and many elderly people live alone,” said John Park, CEO of Circulus, which has received investments from tech giants Samsung and Hyundai. “Pibo can help solve loneliness at home.”
The cute, chunky robot functions like a smart speaker that can respond to questions, but it also has spatial and object recognition and can do tasks using apps developed on an open-source artificial intelligence platform. Pibo, which stands for Personal Interconnect Robot, is going on sale this month at department stores and electronics outlets in South Korea for $800.
Park said he feels South Korea is currently lagging behind Japan and China in integrating robots into everyday life but believes the country still has an opportunity to catch up.
“There’s both a crisis and a big chance ahead for the South Korean robotics industry,” Park said
South Korea is already the fourth-largest market in the world for industrial robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics, and it has the second highest density of robots installed, with 774 robots per 10,000 workers, second only to Singapore.
But the country, a global innovator in many fields, still trails some other developed countries when it comes to robotics technology. A 2017 report by the Bank of Korea placed the technology gap between South Korean robotics and robotics in the United States at 4.2 years, with Korea behind Japan and the European Union as well.
The administration of President Moon Jae-in has highlighted robotics as a key growth driver in a Manufacturing Renaissance Vision designed to revitalize the South Korean economy with innovations such as AI-based smart factories.
South Korea “will raise the local robotics industry as a key future industry through convergence with new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and 5G,” Moon said in March. The government plans to turn robotics technology into a $13 billion industry, with the aim of becoming the fourth-largest player in the world by 2023.
Moon announced a series of investments into robotics research and development for next year, including $250 million in developing service-oriented robots for areas such as healthcare, rehabilitation and disaster response.
In addition to the elderly, children were a focus at the expo, with a variety of educational robots and toys that were not only fun but meant to teach programming skills to upcoming generations.
Zumi, by South Korean startup Robolink, is a self-driving car kit that also teaches about artificial intelligence. Users can train Zumi to navigate new environments through skills such as machine vision, machine learning and Python programming.
“The South Korean government is very eager for students to learn AI,” said Robolink CEO Robert Lee.
The car kit, which raised $150,000 in funding on Kickstarter, will be available in November and is going to be used in 500 South Korean schools at launch, Lee said.
Not all robots were of the cute and cuddly variety, however. Defense manufacturer Hyundai Rotem, a part of South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Motor Group, displayed its machine-gun equipped HR-Sherpa unmanned military concept vehicle and wearable robot technology for soldiers.
South Korea was at the center of a robotics and defense industry scandal last year when research university KAIST was briefly the subject of a boycott by international scientists after it announced it would be working with defense contractor Hanwha Systems on AI projects.
The outcry against potential unmanned AI-powered weapons caused KAIST to quickly release a statement saying it had no plans to build “lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots.”