At Seoul’s Incheon International Airport – one of the world’s largest international flight hubs – two new “stars” are capturing the attention of passengers who cross their paths.
They’re not stars of “K-pop,” South Korea’s increasingly ubiquitous cultural exports of boy bands and girl groups that are now household names in most of Asia. Rather, they are robots – one that guides passengers to their flights by scanning their boarding passes, another a giant Roomba-like floor cleaner that asks politely, in Korean and English, to pass pedestrians in the machine’s cleaning path.
“Where are you going? Have a nice flight!” the robot says cheerfully when a passenger leaves the view of its camera, while another group of travellers inevitably blocks the robot’s path and starts a new wave of photo-taking and hand-waving. (The scene bears a striking resemblance to one of the futuristic scenarios introduced in the Vancouver International Airport’s solicitation for public opinions for its 2037 master plan, although airport representatives said no robots are planned at this time.)
This is the next industrial revolution as envisioned by leading observers around the world: the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) not only in people’s daily lives, but also in the overall global economy. And South Korea, deeming itself several years behind industry leaders like China and the United States, is looking for like-minded partners such as Canada to help it get back in the race.
“It’s very hard for Canada and Korea to develop [large-scale] AI technologies in isolation from other markets,” said Kim Deogtae of the Korea Artificial Intelligence Association, who is also a university professor and president of his own AI tech firm DTWARE Inc. “But I do think that there’s an opportunity for companies on the two sides to co-operate, preferably with corresponding government support.”
That partnership can happen in a number of ways, Kim said. Either Canadian investors can bring Korean-developed technologies like Incheon airport’s robots (made by conglomerate LG) to the North American and European markets through the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or B.C.-based AI developers and startups can use South Korea’s market access to China, Japan and Southeast Asia to expand.
B.C. and the rest of Canada can also be the answer for South Korea’s lack of AI-development talent. Kim said the East Asian nation struggles in that area because its traditional education system focuses on memorization rather than critical thinking.
Canada, in turn, could be a partner in directly supplying AI developers or providing adequate space for Korean students to study the technology.
“It is difficult to develop high-level AI in the Korean educational environment,” he said. “But Korean students are diligent and fast-learning; that is our strength. So if there’s an environment to learn AI, I believe Koreans will be fast to adopt and excel … and we have to look overseas.”
The key, Kim said, would be to join forces to overcome each side’s smaller domestic market for sales, capital and talent when compared with the aforementioned “big two,” China and the U.S.
There are already cases happening in other parts of Canada: a month ago, Korean conglomerate Samsung (KRX:005930) announced it will open its own AI research laboratory in Montreal after three years of working with Canadian teams.
Major players from other countries have also started moving into Canada to mine its AI-technology talent. Google’s (Nasdaq:GOOGL) DeepMind research team – based in Great Britain – chose Edmonton as its first international lab in July. All this is happening with the backdrop of $125 million in earmarked Canadian federal funding for attracting AI development to Canada, as outlined in the federal Liberal government’s 2017 budget.
Most of Ottawa’s effort is concentrated in three metropolitan areas: Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto-Waterloo. But one executive from a Vancouver financial technology (fintech) company that uses AI in its proprietary platform connecting lenders and borrowers said B.C. does have its niche in that sector, and it is up to B.C. companies to spearhead collaborations in markets like South Korea.
“It’s important for anyone who’s not well known in the global market to go out and explain the model and its value proposition,” said Alex Mateesco, CEO of Lendery, which plans to open an office in South Korea to expand its lending platform to Asia.
“I don’t think we should expect other people to know us more than what we know about ourselves. We have to do our own parts to be present internationally … because if we don’t take initiative on that market [fintech], someone else will go carve it out.”
Focusing on a niche market to excel is a good idea for Vancouver’s AI sector, said the CEO of one of South Korea’s leading AI startups. Song Sekyong, who has built Future Robot Co. Ltd. from its launch in 2009 to a company with a market valuation of US$20 million this year, said it was able to succeed by carving out a space within AI that’s underserved by American and Chinese companies, which tend to focus on massive, cloud-storage-based systems that process an enormous amount of data over a wide network. Two examples of the latter are Google’s AlphaGo and Amazon’s (Nasdaq:AMZN) AWS.
Song’s company, however, found its market in creating “social AI”: robots that interact with people by interpreting emotional responses, either through facial expressions or tone of speech, and then responding in kind with emotive answers. In some cases, these “soul-ware” robots even have animated faces to respond with their own emotive reactions.
Up to 30 of these robots will be deployed at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Other applications could include seniors care, personal organizer/living assistance and front-line customer service in various retail settings.
“Most people think of AI as one thing,” Song said. “But that’s not true. It’s a lot more than just Amazon and Google, and there are a lot of variations within the potential market. What interests us is how we can apply AI so that people and AI live together and having the technology fill a very human need – a ‘warm’ technology, if you will.”
Song, whose company employs approximately 35 people, is anticipating Future Robot’s valuation to double next year and hit US$100 million by 2025.
He is also eyeing an initial public offering in a western market – again, an area that could bring Future Robot’s brand to Canada. But Song also noted that he and other AI developers are aware of some people’s fear of AI and its potential to eliminate human jobs. To those concerns, Song said it’s not that jobs will disappear with AI, but rather they will transform.
“If you look at history, technology shifts and labour trends have always happened in tandem,” he said, noting AI will require a large number of programmers and technicians to maintain. “A robot can replace human labour, but it can’t replace a human being.”
Lendery’s Mateesco added that any B.C. companies looking to jump into transpacific AI co-operation deals must always consider the human element to achieve market acceptance.
“The mistake a lot of companies make is to push a technology and make it a top-down decision, which can be hard on consumers who are not ready. The point of technology is to serve people, to make lives more comfortable; so you have to let people decide what makes them comfortable.”