I, robot - is this the face of the future?
South Korea is blazing a hi-tech trail where most homes will have electronic servants, guards and pets, writes Andrew Salmon
Can the world expect to one day see a kimchi-powered android?
If South Korea has its way, the answer is yes. Already a hi-tech powerhouse, this ambitious nation is thinking well beyond the futuristic mobile phones and ultra-high-speed internet connections for which it is already famed. Every South Korean household, the government predicts, will own at least one robot by 2020.
In a showroom in ritzy southern Seoul, the first consumer robot designed by the nation's flagship company, Samsung Electronics, is already hard at work.
Whirring busily across the floor, about 10cm high and about 30cm wide, this disc-shaped robotic vacuum cleaner has been sold under Samsung's high-end Hauzen home appliance brand for 800,000 won (HK$6,789) since last July.
Sensors keep the 6kg droid from banging against the walls; a gyroscope keeps it on path. Battery-run, it automatically returns to its recharging bay when its power drops below 20 per cent.
'We developed the first model in 2004 and have sold around 3,000 in Korea,' says principal engineer Joo Jae-man. 'I think we will have a third model ready for export by October this year.'
A dark, dystopian future feared by science fiction writers, in which robots replace humans, may not be far ahead. 'In a women's magazine there was an interesting comment,' said Samsung senior manager Baik Soo-ha. 'A housewife said, 'My robot vacuum is not perfect, but it is better than my husband, who just lies on the sofa and watches TV'.'
Across town, at the Information and Communications Ministry's 'Ubiquitous Dream' exhibition, a rather different droid is showcased. With a knee-high dome, a digital camera in his forehead, a couple of lit-up eyes and a touch-pad LCD screen set into his belly, this cheerful little fellow is I-Robi-Q. Designed and built by robot venture Yujin, it sells for around 2 million won.
I-Robi-Q is a household service/entertainment/security bot. The camera in his head can relay - via wireless internet - live footage of the house, so owners can monitor their home from afar. It also functions as a mobile information and entertainment console, offering news, weather, karaoke, movies, recipes - even English lessons.
'When you are making food in the kitchen, you don't need a PC,' says An Sam-keun, a researcher at the exhibit. 'The robot can come in and tell you the recipe.'
If any country appears well placed to fulfil the ambition of becoming a robotopia, it is South Korea.
On the hardware front, it is home to a world-class manufacturing sector, with core strengths in mechanical engineering and electronics. In the social sphere, it has a tech-savvy population that enthusiastically adopts hi-tech gadgets.
Underpinning all of this are social imperatives. The country faces a demographic time bomb. It is, by some estimates the fastest-ageing society on Earth. Moreover, mirroring trends in the west, the nuclear family is breaking up, leading to ever-greater numbers of senior citizens without children to care for them.
And in a society wary of foreigners, immigration rules are tight, meaning the kind of Filipina home help that is available in Hong Kong is rare in South Korea.
'Korea is headed towards an ageing society with low birth rates: One possible solution is the use of robotics,' says the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy (Mocie) in an investor presentation.
Even so, the government concedes that South Korea has a lot of catching up to do. Its technologies are three to five years behind the market leaders, and it suffers from a shortage of experts.
The nation suffers from a culture of conformity and an ossified educational system that critics say stifles creativity and individualism.
Although South Korean firms hold a plethora of international patents, most advances are incremental rather than ground-breaking: a mobile phone with extra features, a faster semiconductor, a larger LCD. Samsung's robot vacuum cleaner is little different from European and US models; its one special feature is that it can be activated from afar by mobile phone. But while South Korea may currently lag in technology, Seoul believes it can stimulate demand - demand that its tech-happy citizens will lap up.
'The robot industry is the only industry after 2010 that can generate tens of billions of dollars,' Mocie insists. 'The lack of a market will give the opportunity to lead the robotics industry.'
The plan is promoted from on high. Government mandarins led South Korea's first industrial miracle in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They were also behind the laying of its world-leading fibre-optic broadband network and its adoption of the more advanced CDMA mobile phone standard, rather than the more widely used GSM in the mid-1990s. From 2003 to 2006, the government sank 114.2 billion won into robot development.
However, it is still in its early days. South Korea's domestic robot market, which includes 180 companies in the manufacturing, services and components sectors, is worth about US$600 million. In the world market, South Korea has a 3 per cent share - well behind market leaders Japan (28 per cent), the US (22 per cent) and Germany (18 per cent).
Mocie expects the nascent global robot sector to mature into a US$150 billion industry by 2016. As Bill Gates noted last December: 'The next hot field is robotics.'
The Microsoft founder compared the robotics field to PCs in the 1970s, anticipating rapid future growth. Industry is taking it seriously: Samsung's Mr Joo says robotics is the company's No2 priority among eight future strategic growth areas.
The main trends for robot development in South Korea are in the home service, pensioners' life care and military/security areas.
Home service robots already on the market or at the prototype stage include those mentioned, as well as robotic pets.
Robotic mobile chairs and people movers would make life easier for Korea's rapidly greying population. And in the military field, camera-equipped border guards, small armoured vehicles and hovering robots similar to battlefield drones are at the prototype stage.
Research institutes have already come up with walking, talking androids, including an 'Albert Hubo' ('Albert Einstein Humanoid-robot'). Networked robots, known as URC ('Ubiquitous Robotic Companions') are, rather like R2D2 of Star Wars fame or Dr Who's Daleks, dome-shaped machines that run on wheels rather than legs. They include various entertainment/infotainment consoles. And prototype industrial robots, capable of high-precision engineering, exist.
But that's just the start. By 2015, the ministry expects to see android-like home-service robots, as well as warrior robots - a robotised chassis with a 5.56mm automatic rifle or light-machine gun mounted on top. Samsung Techwin, an optical device maker, is co-ordinating with the ministry of national defence to develop guardian robots to patrol the tense North Korean border.
South Korea, if it can integrate its existing metal bashing industry with its wide use of IT and communications technologies, is well fitted for a takeoff.
That became clear when, in 2005, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology unveiled what it called 'the world's most advanced humanoid robot,' a 152cm high, 66kg machine with onboard visual, audio and motion sensors that walks at 0.9km/h. The robot can recognise its 'master' and detect and analyse visual and audio signals.
National ambitions have already captured the imagination of tech junkies overseas who, perhaps mindful of the success of the nation's previous technological initiatives, are showing a keen interest in Seoul's robotics pronouncements.
'You've got 14 years, South Korea, to make good on your promise: 100 per cent market penetration for robots in the home some time between 2015 and 2020,' said a poster on tech website Engadget. 'Don't go all getting our hopes up for some postmodern South Korean android utopia of intelligent networked household service bots unless you're prepared to deliver, OK?'