It has only been four years since Korea categorized robotics as one of its growth engines and actively started research and development. The government succeeded in generalizing Ubiquitous Robotic Companions (URCs) in 2005 and is now taking the next step to build networked robots. In an interview with Dr.
Oh Sang-rok, IT Policy Advisor and Project Manager of Intelligent Service Robots and Next Generation PCs, he stated the progress and direction of the Korean robotics industry and the government's distinctive role.
The robotics business was first recognized as one of Korea's ten growth engines when the IT 839 strategy was established in 2003. "Although the robotics industry seemed risky and brand new at that time, the Ministry of Information and Communication [MIC] sought positive potentials in robotic business and made a bold decision to take the first step." Dr. Oh continued: "IT industry has a value chain that enlarges the structure of the industry. Looking at a business model's aspect, the business will require original service providers, content providers, and solution providers. It creates more jobs and boosts the economy by creating those providers."
The government has budgeted 120 billion won (US$131 million) so far to the MIC to support robot commercialization. The first attempt the government made was to build a high quality robot at a low price.
As a solution, the MIC built a Ubiquitous Robotic Companion Development Center to share the studies and technologies the government found with robotics enterprises and supported them in their efforts to make a viable business model. The MIC role here is to set policies to provide research funds and support enterprises to produce robots. Dr. Oh, who is also the leader of the URC Development Center, added:
"The URC Development Center is an organization for enterprises and of enterprises. The whole idea of the development center is for enterprise-centered meetings to apply government funded technology to commercialize the product."
The outcome was positive. In 2006, the URC Development Center influenced the commercialization of robots with a One Million Won Robot Era as a slogan. One million won robots were called Kookmin Robots, meaning robots for citizens. "Our ultimate goal was, and still is, to manufacture high quality affordable robots for every family to have robotic companions in the emerging ubiquitous life. One way to make it happen is to produce a large quantity of robots at once," Dr. Oh added.
The first large batch of robots was made in 2006 by building four types of robots for the different fields of education, home security, cleaning, and entertainment.
Once the MIC gave out 850 of them to randomly chosen families with no charge and ran a three month testing service, the URC Development Center learned from the feedback and sought strategies to satisfy the customers. Some of these robots like cleaning robots were soon put on the market and commercialized. Education robots were also very popular amongst parents and children. Some of them are being used in kindergartens in Korea and the same model robots were exported to a large amount of kindergartens in China last month. Based on the positive progress, the government plans to commercialize education robots via the newly developed Network Robot.
Seeing positive progress from the test business, the MIC and the Ubiquitous Robotic Companion Development Center are currently working to commercialize network robots. Network robots can be connected to a network to download content and upgrade themselves with extra functions. Just like mobile phone internet services, a network robot will link online wirelessly, in one simple step. Here, gaming and education content can be downloaded.
To increase the quality of the network robot, a voice solution can be added to the robot by embedding a software voice engine. "The concept of networked robots sounds like modern PCs or mobile telecom.
Users nowadays prefer to download software and content rather than buying a CD. As I mentioned earlier, the test business we ran in 2006 showed a positive reaction of the customers and a high demands for education robots. We believe that networked robots will be best suited for educational purposes, since thousands of new educational applications will show up online every day to meet the customer's great expectations and demands."
The MIC's next assignment lies with the question: "What policy and research and development will be next" Dr. Oh concluded by answering: "We see that we have succeeded the first step until 2007.
The commercialization of robots and creating a new concept of network robots are the main positive results. The second step will produce further supportive policies for research and development."