In South Korea, it's already unremarkable to see robots cleaning the airport, teaching English and working assembly lines. In 2016, the country sold some 41,000 robots, half as many as China, which has more than 25 times the population. Why is the country such a leader in robotics? Experts point to factors including a post-war focus on the technology sector, an eager consumer base, and even an animist religious tradition that may make the populace more comfortable with non-human intelligences.
This month, the country will demonstrate its robotic prowess by using 85 robots at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. According to South Korea's commerce ministry, the robots will assist athletes, clean venues, provide translation and even ski. Perhaps athletes should worry whether their jobs are next to fall to the coming droid revolution?
Torch Bearer Droids
Clad in an Olympic beanie, 47-inch humanoid robot HUBO drove a car in December’s torch relay, then got out and carried the torch to a wall, punched through the wall as a demonstration of his rescue skills, and passed the flame to his creator, Professor Oh Jun-ho. Oh, who is in charge of managing robots for the Games, then handed the flame to FX-2, an eight-foot-tall humanoid riding robot piloted by a teenage student. HUBO, designed for rescue, won a 2015 DARPA robot challenge organized in response to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. FX-2, Oh’s latest creation, is designed to make humans stronger, Iron Man-style, or to provide mobility for the disabled.
Robots will vie for gold at the world’s first all-robot ski competition, to be held on the Olympics sidelines. Eight teams from local universities and tech firms will compete. All robots must be humanoid, bipedal and at least 50 centimeters tall. They must ski without human control, holding on to their poles the whole time. Watch them hit the slopes on February 11.
AI-Powered Translation Androids
Robots will provide translation services, speaking Korean, Chinese, English and Japanese. The humanoid robots, developed by Korean company FutureRobot, are equipped with GenieTalk, an AI-powered translation software developed by the Korean company Hancom. The translator bots will provide assistance to visitors at different event venues.
“This will allow them to feel as if they are talking to a human being, as both firms focused on developing an emotionally interactive robot in terms of its service and appearence," said a Hancom spokeswoman, speaking with Korean media.
Soohorang, the adorable white tiger mascot of the 2018 Olympics, will be present at the Games in robot form. The Soohorang bot will dance, offer translation, provide gesture-based guidance, and snap commemorative photos for fans. The word ‘Sooho’ means protection in Korean; white tigers are considered South Korea’s guardian animal.
Cleaning and Service Robots
Autonomous cleaning robots bearing a passing resemblance to Star Wars’ BB-8, only equipped with brushes, will keep facilities tidy throughout the Games. The LG Electronics robots, which can clean 900 square meters per hour, use autonomous driving technology to avoid humans while picking up trash and dusting. Other robots will provide drink service and give directions and other info.
Painting robots with arms that can reach 20 meters high will paint murals on demand, based on real-time topics like gold medal winners. The robots use four types of ink, which they can mix into more than 1,000 colors.
Schools of robotic fish will wow spectators by swimming in underwater formations in aquariums in Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza and the International Broadcast Center. The bots, clad in waterproof colored skins and equipped with decorative headlights, are guided by sensors and can dive up to five meters. They’re modeled after sea bream and koi, the latter a common ornamental fish in ponds and aquariums.