The future is AI Technology. Top entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have been talking about the potential value as well as the harm of true AI. AI represents a major leap forward in how computers can learn on their own. In South Korea, a vast majority of jobs are jobs that require little creativity and a lot of manual repetition. These jobs include retail, customer support, and factory jobs. Currently, there are many computers that can perform a particular task over and over again. Therefore they are able to learn as they go. However, is this really AI? Or rather is it just machine learning? It is difficult to find companies in Korea that are creating true AI, however, most are moving in that direction.

AI vs Machine Learning

Many startups in Korea are branding themselves as AI technology startups. However, in most cases, they are working their way towards AI by using Machine Learning. Therefore, Many have not achieved true AI. True AI means some kind of software that can solve problems by itself without any help from humans. Think of AI as the ultimate goal and machine learning is a subset within AI. Machine learning is one of many tools that include deep learning and reinforcement learning. Machine learning uses large amounts of data to find the best solution. Therefore they build algorithms that can learn from data. These are designed to perform specific tasks only.

We saw with Google’s Deep Mind that a computer can get smarter by performing many simulated games (data) over and over again. This is how the world’s top GO player Lee Sedol lost to a computer (AlphaGo). A self-driving car learns through its owner as well as the environment. Therefore these self-learning machines can become better drivers over time. As AI technology continues to advance, how far is Korea when it comes to this breakthrough technology? How much effect will AI have on the Korean economy and more importantly, employment in Korea?


AI in Korea

So far one of the top Korean AI systems is called Exobrain. It was developed by the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI). Exobrain a few years back beat two quiz champions as well as two collegians. One of them got a perfect score on Korea’s national college entrance exam. Not only did Exobrain beat the human counterparts but crushed them by getting a score of 510. To take that into context, the next highest score was 360. Exobrain won the top prize of 25 million won.

“Exobrain’s victory today is a milestone that marked a new era in Korea’s AI research,” said Seo Suk-jin, director general of the Software Policy Bureau of the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning. “We will concentrate on supporting development of the Exobrain AI system, which will be the key in the fourth industrial revolution, and help it compete with other AI systems such as IBM’s Watson in the industry.”

Exobrain was not perfect as it still got a few questions wrong. Those questions tended to be more subjective rather than objective. This will be a relatively easy fix in the future as more data is put into the system. This will help in its ability to analyze and learn.

So what can Exobrain actually do? Exobrain can analyze the Korean language and learn from it and constantly improve its analysis. Therefore Exobrain has the ability to store large amounts of data which it will use to answer even the most complex questions. Therefore this is more of a machine learning system than true AI, but the potential is intriguing.

Big Corporations in Korea Developing AI Technologies


Naver (the Google of Korea) and KAIST (the MIT of Korea) are partnering up to create an AI research center that focuses on the application of hyperscale computing. What is hyperscale computing? It is the processing of big data and cloud computing. Therefore hyperscale AI refers to the analysis of massive datasets to make autonomous decisions. Major global companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are already using this technique. The center will be called “KAIST-NAVER Hypercreaive AI Center”. It will have over 100 AI researchers from both Naver and KAIST in order to develop hyperscale AI and creative AI. Naver has also partnered with Seoul National University (the Harvard of Korea) to join in the project.


KT AI in Korea

KT has been very aggressive in embracing AI technology in Korea by investing and researching in AI/Machine Learning fields. Their focus now is on not only AI but also big data and cloud computing. Just like what AWS is doing for Amazon, KT will look to Cloud services to expand their business beyond voice communication and high-speed internet services. Therefore, AI will be critical in developing cloud services that will easily sync with Korea’s 5G network. As 5G increases in Korea, the need for cloud services in Korea will also increase.

All-in-One Services

KT will focus on bringing an all-in-one service that includes network, storage, and wireless hardware. Therefore they will look to continue their research into their AI speaker GiGA Genie. Currently, it is being utilized for hotels, cars, and homes. However, they want to expand their service for customer service, robots, and automation for the food and beverage industry. Therefore, KT has been aggressively looking to partner with AI startups in Korea as well as conglomerates in the AI field to expand their AI network. Recently they partnered with Dongwon Group to create an AI Smart Factory that will package Dongwon’s fishery products. In addition, KT partnered with Hyundai Heavy Industries Holding, KAIST, Hanyang University, and Korea Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, to establish an AI One Team. They will focus on creating an Open AI ecosystem to further the growth of AI technology in Korea.

Hyperscale AI in Korea

KT is also looking into hyperscale AI through joint research with Korean Universities and government research centers. They partnered with AI One Team, a research alliance in order to debut the hyperscale AI model by 2022. AI One Team includes 10 organizations with KAIST being one of them. KT will be in charge of the whole R&D process which mainly includes data collection. The Universities KT has partnered with will be responsible for machine-learning algorithms and data filtering. Training of the AI model should finish by the end of 2021 and the commercialization of the AI platform is targeted for the first half of 2022. The hyperscale AI will be first applied to KT’s AI assistant Giga Genie.

“Developing a hyperscale AI model which combines world-class technologies and experiences of AI One FTeam has special meaning in securing core technology in the next generation of AI. Through this project, we will contribute to strengthening the competitiveness of Korean AI,” said Hong Kyung-pyo, an official from KT.

Kakao Enterprise

Kakao Enterprise is Kakao’s AI technology-based working platform. As far as creating partnerships, Kakao has been very aggressive. Their aim is to become the AI department store in Korea. They have made partnerships with KBS to create an AI announcer and Kyobyo Life Insurance to create an AI chatbot for their customer support center. They are also working with Samsung C& to build a service that allows Everland (Disneyland of Korea) ticket sales and food/beverage orders using KakaoTalk. Moreover, they are working with LG Electronics to connect Kakao’s AI speaker Kakao Mini to all of their TV models.

Samsung Electronics

Samsung AI in South Korea

In order to dominate the global AI industry, a company will need to create semiconductors with AI abilities. Samsung will look to create AI semiconductors by 2030. The Korean government is in full support of helping the next generation of semiconductor companies. They have already made plans to invest over $850 million in AI chips by 2030. In addition, Samsung has also stated that they will be using AI to create new ships by using Synopsys AI software when designing their ships.

South Korea already has two of the world’s biggest memory chip makers in Samsung and SK Hynix. However, this is more on the manufacturing side rather than the core technology side. Samsung’s focus moving forward will be on making the semiconductors smarter using AI technology. Samsung has pledged to hire over 1,000 new employees to work on AI technology.

South Korea’s Artificial Intelligence Research Institute

The Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (AIRI) was established by the Software Policy & Research Institute (SPRi) who brought some of the top companies in Korea together. Some of the companies included Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, SK Telecom, KT, Hyundai Motor Company, and Hanwha Life Insurance each put 3 billion won for the project back in 2016. Since then, the AIRI has been used for research and development for intelligence information technology. This does not only include AI but also big data and cloud technologies.

Self Driving Cars in Korea

President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in wants to have self-driving cars in Korea by 2027. His goal is to become the first country in the world to have self-driving cars on major streets. This is why the Korean government and Hyundai Motor Group plan to invest over $50 billion in the self-driving car industry by 2025.

“Our goal is to become the world’s number one powerhouse in the future vehicle industry by 2030,” said Moon Jae In.

The Korean government has already started to revise regulations and set up traffic infrastructure for fully autonomous vehicles in Korea. In addition, they will draw up rules and regulations for insurance in regards to self-driving cars. Hyundai said they will start coming out with semi-autonomous cars by the end of 2021. The goal for Hyundai is to have fully autonomous cars on the streets of Korea by 2024.

Korean Startup Using Self-Driving Technology

AI in Korea

Korean startup RideFlux is looking to build a ride-sharing company. They already partnered with another mobility startup SOCAR to create Korea’s first self-driving car. The self-driving car has cameras and proximity sensors and has been running on Korea’s roads for a while now. They have already transported customers from Jeju airport to local tourist destinations. Under South Korean law a safety drive has to sit behind the wheel poised to intervene if necessary.

“Our aim is to put self-driving cars without safety drivers operating in all parts of Jeju in the next five years,” said the CEO of RideFlux Park Jung-hee.

The Korean Government’s Support for AI Technology

The Korean government is heavily investing in AI technology. They released an AI strategy that would put them as a top 5 contender in AI by 2022. In order to make this a reality, the Korean government realized that they need more AI engineers. They have already made plans to build 6 new AI schools in 2020. This will lead to more than 5,000 AI engineers by 2024. In addition, the Korean government will focus on AI-based industrial intelligence across all manufacturing sectors. They have created an AI strategy that will lead to the development of over 2,000 AI-based factories by 2030. These will be more advanced versions of smart factories.

The data collected from these factories will be stored in a data center to support AI-based services in software, sensors, robots, and equipment. The Korean government plans to invest over $7 billion in R&D in three main sectors: non-memory chip, bio-tech, and mobility. A little under $4 billion was spent in 2020 in these sectors. The rest was used for data, 5G network services, and AI. Their hope is that these investments in core infrastructure and new industries will help innovative growth that will spill over into other industry sectors. One of the first tasks will be to launch an AI research and development complex in Gwangju at some point in 2021.

Korea to become the most competitive AI industry

South Korea dominates the semiconductor industry and has 25 times the processing speed of existing integrated circuits. Korea will continue to invest billions into the next generation of smart chips. Therefore Korea will be at the cutting edge of semiconductor technologies moving forward. An example of the latest cutting-edge semiconductor technology is the processing-in-memory (PIM) chips which have the ability to act like a human brain. Over 1 trillion won will be used for processing-in-memory chips that can mimic a person’s brain and facilitate “deep learning” by machines that are critical for the expansion of AI not only in Korea but around the globe.

The aim to become an AI industry leader is strong as the Korean government feels this AI technology will bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in the long term. In addition, AI technology has the potential to improve the standard of living in Korea. Currently, South Korea’s AI technology is behind the US, China, and the European Union. However, Korea hopes to narrow this gap greatly by 2030. The first step towards this is to support Korean AI startups. Furthermore, the Korean government has promised to invest over $20 billion of its budget to nurture the science and technology, and AI sectors.

Korea is already one of the world’s leaders in manufacturing and 5G communication network infrastructure. It is only a matter of time before they have a top 5 global AI infrastructure.