No one has ever accused South Korea of lacking in national pride, so when Google’s AlphaGo artificial intelligence (AI) soundly defeated its Go master Lee Se-dol at his own strategic board game, the nation sat up and took notice.

“Watching Google’s AlphaGo AI eviscerate Korean grandmaster Lee Se-dol put the nation into shock,” New Scientist reported on March 15, noting South Korean headlines such as “The ‘Horrifying Evolution’ of Artificial Intelligence” and quoting JoongAng Ilbo’s lead Go correspondent, Jeong Ahram: “Last night was very gloomy. Many people drank alcohol.”

Suddenly everyone was talking about AI, and electronics companies quickly picked up the term to help sell virtually anything with a computer chip in it, from Samsung’s AI refrigerator to LG Electronics’s AI washing machine.

Amara’s law, an adage named after systems engineer Roy Amara who said people tend to overestimate technology in the short-run but underestimate it in the long run, seemed to be in effect.

But the hype isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Several major companies are doing serious research and development in the field. Last month, Kakao, the country’s top instant messaging company, teamed up with Hyundai Motor, its top carmaker, to develop AI technology. In June, LG Electronics created an AI research lab and Naver, the country’s top web portal, held a Silicon Valley networking event for AI talent.

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Also, Seoul National University’s department of electrical and computer engineering, in partnership with SK Telecom, the country’s largest wireless carrier, will train students in AI theory starting this month.

All of this is in anticipation of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which proponents say differs from the third, digital revolution in its emphasis on AI technology. Some speculate this could affect the Korean economy as much as its shipping, automobile and electronics industries.

South Korea entered the electronics industry in the late 1950s by assembling imported radio parts. Its per capita gross domestic product was US$92 in 1961, less than Cambodia and Bangladesh.

But in the next few years, its powerful workforce, government-subsidised emphasis on exports and an influx of US and Japanese capital led to rapid industrialisation. Today, Korea tops the 2016 ICT Development Index and the 2017 Bloomberg Innovation Index. While these forces are still in play, some say South Korea has already lost its chance to take an competitive edge in the new age of AI.

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“Korea is not very advanced in many of the sectors that are usually referred to as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Park Dae-keun, professor of economics at Hanyang University. “In artificial intelligence, for example, Korea is well behind other countries. We didn’t invest much in that sector. Nowadays, after the Go game between a Korean Go player and AI, it has become a popular government catchphrase to invest in AI, but before then they didn’t pay much attention to it.”

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He added: “The number of engineers who can develop software has been decreasing for over 10 years. That’s recently been reversed, but it’s a little bit too late. Korea was a global power in some electronics areas, but if you think about sectors in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I don’t think Korea is leading. The government is trying to invest, but it takes time. Everyone is talking about AI, but we haven’t trained many soldiers to fight that battle.”

According to a Korea JoongAng Daily report, Lee Hae-jin, chairman of Naver’s board of directors, recently told employees: “Tencent and Google have the world’s best talent. It’s like they have 300 armoured battleships, while we only have 10 wooden vessels.”

Some warn that the idea of an AI war goes beyond metaphor. On August 27, retired British Army officer General Sir Richard Lawson Barrons told The Telegraph that the Korean border will soon be guarded by robots because young soldiers “get hot, they get cold, so their attention span is shorter and a machine doesn’t blink, doesn’t get hot, doesn’t get cold and just follows the rules. In a defined space like the DMZ it’s as simple as ‘see something move and shoot at it’.”

This was in response to a comment Elon Musk made on August 12, who said AI posed “vastly more risk than North Korea”.

These fears don’t seem to be fading any time soon, but neither is the economic importance or the everyday practicality of AI technology, especially in a country as electronically connected as South Korea. Drawbacks aside, this means there is likely no turning back from AI immersion for South Korea, and in this regard hype can serve a good purpose.

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“Before last year’s AlphaGo game, the media wrote many articles about artificial intelligence,” said Kim Yeoung-hwan, professor of computing at KAIST, “so suddenly many people learned about AI. But I think there’s a gap between real AI technology and these reports. There has been little change, even now in Korea, so we need to improve our AI strength, but at least now the government, businesses and the media have started to see its importance.”

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