A Robot in Every Home by 2020, South Korea Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 06, 2006
This year researchers in South Korea unveiled a lifelike android named EveR-1.

Fifteen motors underneath its silicon skin enable the robot, which looks like a Korean female in her early 20s, to hold a conversation, make eye contact, and appear to express emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness. (See a photo of the Korean android.)

"EveR-1 demonstrates [that] our robotic technologies are at the forefront of the world," said the android's creator, Baeg Moon-hong, a senior researcher with the Division for Applied Robot Technology at the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology in Ansan.

In fact, South Korea intends to make robots full members of society (map of South Korea).

Already the most wired country in the world, the Asian nation is merging information and robot technologies to make so-called networked robots—as opposed to ones that operate independently. The new breed of 'bots should be able to do everything from guiding museum visitors to teaching school children English.

Sound like science fiction?

The South Korean government doesn't think so. It wants to see mass production of networked robots begin next year and hopes to put a robot in every household by 2020.

"Personally, I wish to accomplish that objective by 2010," said Oh Sang Rok, who oversees the massive intelligent-service-robot project at the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication.

Robot Companions

South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world with 72 percent of all households having broadband Internet.

But the nation still lags behind U.S. and Japanese competitors in robotics. While U.S. companies, in particular, have focused on developing military and industrial robots, South Korea has focused mainly on service robots.

"The market size of industrial robots is almost saturated worldwide … but the market of service robots is only now opening," said Oh, whose project gathers under its umbrella more than 30 companies and some 1,000 university and research-institution scientists.

"If we [South Koreans] could show some killer applications with favorable business models, we could lead the service-robot market in the future, even though we have lagged several years [behind], in terms of core technologies in robotics," he said.

Small Korean companies already manufacture everything from entertainment robots to robots that vacuum and clean houses.

The South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication wants to use these existing robots as a platform for intelligent service robots by integrating network capabilities into them.

Oh calls such robots ubiquitous robotic companions, or URC. They could be used for entertainment, education, home security, and household chores, he says.

"Social and economic needs for intelligent service robots to support people's daily lives are increasing with the advance of an aging society," Oh said.

Robot Society

Under a pilot program three types of networked robots were distributed to 64 South Korean households and two post offices late last year. A second phase in the testing will place robots in 650 households and 20 public places later this year.

One company, Yujin Robot, started developing prototypes of networked robots in 2004 and has sold about a hundred, mostly to universities, according to the New York Times.

Though plugged into a network, these robots are not as sophisticated as EveR-1.

From a distance the female android could be confused with a human being. EveR-1 can move the upper half of her body, including arms and hands, while the lower half is immobile.

"For now, EveR-1 can be employed as a guide robot at museums and department stores or as an educational model to read books to children," Baeg, its creator, said.

South Korea is not alone in its robotic endeavors. Japan has already developed several life-size androids and is pursuing a networked robot program of its own.

"This is an international activity," said Hiroshi Ishiguru, co-creator of Repliee Q1 and Q2, a female android that was first unveiled at the World Expo in Japan last year. (See a photo of the ultra-lifelike Japanese robot.)

But is the world ready for a robot-centered intelligent society?

"I believe the most innovative products that changed the 20th century are the PC and the Internet," Oh said. "What will [we see] in this century? I like to believe it will be robots.

"If we can show convenient and intelligent services to people using the self-mobility and interactive functions of robots, I am sure that people will want to use these devices to better their lives," he said.

Mark Tilden, the designer of RoboSapien—a toy-like, biologically inspired (or biomorphic) robot—cautions against unrealistic public expectations about robot developments.

"Robots need a lot of local intelligence for instant responses to the world at large … it'll still take a lot of research to make robots effective and inexpensive," Tilden, who works for Wow Wee Toys in Hong Kong, said in an email.

"The elusive 'killer app' still awaits the 'killer tech' that'll make robots demanded in every home."

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