South Korea Aims High on AI, Pumps $2 Billion Into R&D

The birthplace of Samsung, LG and Hyundai, South Korea is a hotbed for tech and consumer electronics innovation. The country however trails neighbors China and Japan in the artificial intelligence competition, and lags far behind global leader the United States.

Eager to kickstart its AI industry, the nation of 52 million yesterday released an ambitious national plan to invest ₩2.2 trillion (US$2 billion) by 2022 to strengthen its AI R&D capability. The program includes the establishment of six new AI research institutes, JoongAng Ilbo reports.

“The government believes obtaining AI core technologies by joining hands with private corporations will not only achieve global standards but eventually nurture talented people and quality jobs. We aim to reach the global top four by 2022,” says Chang Byung-gyu, head of the Presidential Fourth Industrial Revolution Committee launched last October.

Ramping up efforts in AI research

This is not the first time South Korea has made a big commitment to AI. In 2016 DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated Korean Go Master Lee Sedol, which shocked Koreans. Two days later the country announced it would invest ₩1 trillion (US$863 million) in AI research over the next five years.

Lee Sedol (right) fought a valiant but losing battle against DeepMind’s AlphaGo in 2016

This time, the pressure comes from China and its aggressive plan to build an AI industry worth US$150 billion by 2030. Earlier this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed “reinforcing the new generation of artificial intelligence research and development” among the state’s innovation focuses for 2018.

South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSICT) proposed the investment strategy as a way to close the gap between Korea’s AI tech and China’s. The MSITC also estimated that Korean AI tech is currently 1.8 years behind US AI tech.

The MSICT defines South Korea’s AI R&D strategy in three categories: human resources, technology and infrastructure.

Under the plan, South Korea will cultivate 1370 AI talents by 2022, including 350 key researchers; and award 4,500 domestic AI scholarships. The Ministry also announced a short-term project to address the AI talent shortage with six-month intensive training courses that will gestate 600 young talents by 2021. Meanwhile, universities are being encouraged to set up AI courses.

A large-scale public specialization project to develop AI technology will also be carried out, with a focus on new drug development and medical services. Just today, South Korea approved the AI-powered VUNOmed-BoneAge, an image diagnostics device that uses deep learning to determine bone age from an X-ray scan of a person’s hand. It is expected to be deployed in children’s growth clinics.

South Korea is also smartening up its chip industry with an approved budget of ₩1 trillion (US$1 billion) for development of AI semiconductors by 2029. This will enable domestic chip makers to put greater focus on AI chip development.

To strengthen its AI infrastructure, the strategy calls for further research on AI and brain science at local universities and the establishment of five regional AI research centers to conduct research on integrating AI into robotics, bio-science, machinery and automobiles.

Jim Kyung-Soo Liew, assistant professor in finance at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and founder of AI startup SoKat, told Synced that “clearly that kind of money will be at step in the right direction, but Korea will need to bring some of that money to the universities toward R&D. Also motivate professors and students to start AI based companies.”

Might South Korea be the dark horse in the AI race?

South Korea’s heavy investment on AI R&D comes as no surprise. Innovation and technology laid the groundwork for the country’s remarkable economic rise over the past half century. Powerful multinational corporations, known as chaebol, take the lead in technology development, while the government plays a critical role in boosting R&D capacity.

During the 1970s South Korea established a string of research institutions, including the Daedeok Innopolis — a dedicated industrial science hub housing 26 research institutes, seven universities, 1,484 firms, and more than 26,000 researchers (including 10,244 PhDs). In 1999, the South Korea government earmarked US$3.5 billion for twenty-three projects in fields such as bioscience, nanotechnology and space technology.

Daedeok Innopolis

In 2014, South Korea’s R&D budget accounted for 4.29 percent of its GDP, ahead of other R&D leaders Israel (4.11 percent) and Japan (3.58 percent). This year’s Bloomberg Innovative Index ranks South Korea as the world’s most innovative economy, a position it has occupied for five consecutive years.

South Korea is also known for the cutting-edge industrial robotics technology in its automotive, electronics, and semiconductor industries. The country has 631 robots per 10,000 human workers, the highest concentration of any nation, according to International Federation of Robotics (IFR),

Like its East Asian neighbours China and Japan, South Korea is also believed to be more open-minded than Western countries when it comes to autonomous devices and robots, which are more favoured than feared. In 2016, South Korea sold more than 41,000 robots, the second most of any country, according to IFR.

AI is a global trend, and many other countries and organizations are scrambling for position. This year, France pledged €1.5 billion (US$1.77 billion) to hasten the development of its fledgling AI ecosystem, while the European Commission announced that it would devote €1.5 billion to AI research funding by 2020. The Indian government meanwhile released a comprehensive plan with recommendations to boost the AI sector in the country for at least the next five years. The UAE has even named the world’s first Minister for AI.

Regional powerhouses are significantly expanding their AI capabilities, and it is clear that South Korea, whose economic growth and exports have been fueled largely by its tech industries, and which already enjoys an advantage in many AI-related fields, does not intend to be left behind.

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Journalist: Tony Peng| Editor: Michael Sarazen

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