In Dobong-gu in northeast Seoul, the Seoul Robot & AI Museum (Seoul: RAIM), which was built mostly by robots and drones, is nearing completion. Scheduled to open this fall, the museum represents a daring effort to integrate robotics into the construction of a public building. Experiments in robotics development and implementation are active in South Korea and hold the potential to turn the country into the undisputed leader in robotics.
In 2021, South Korea ranked first in the world in robot density per worker, with about 1,000 robots for every 10,000 employees. Industrial powerhouses, such as China, Germany, Japan, and the US, had much lower robot densities. The country has an active robotics research scene in companies and universities creating experiments in a wide range of applications. Over the past couple of years, corporate giants, such as Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and Hyundai Motor Group have made a big push to become global players in robotics.
But why South Korea? What are the conditions that have helped it develop such a strong robotics industry? Three ideas come to mind: the 1990s IT boom, “blue ocean” mindset, and demographic changes.
The history of tech in South Korea traces its roots the booming electronics industry in the 1980s. Because of its dependence on exports, South Korea has long been sensitive to changes in global markets. When that digital revolution centering on personal computes and the Internet boomed in the 1990s, the country adjusted quickly to meet the change. Efforts to promote economic recovery following the 1997 economic crisis focused on IT and venture industries. In this context, robotics was one of many emerging technologies that stirred interest.
Interest in new technology also comes from a “blue ocean” mindset that spread with late-1990s venture boom. The term blue ocean, which was first described in the 2004 book “Blue Ocean Strategy,” refers to unknown future markets with no competition that offer the potential for rapid and profitable growth.
This mindset is appealing to the South Korean entrepreneurs as a strategy to avoid competing with large domestic firms and global multinationals. To succeed, however, entrepreneurs must follow technological developments carefully to create products that generate sustainable demand. The desire to create and profit in a blue ocean has given many South Korean entrepreneurs a forward-looking edge, particularly in the implementation of new technology. This helps explain why small and venture companies took an interest in robotics before corporate giants.
Finally, the aging of the population, not just in South Korea but also in other advanced industrial countries, has created shortage of younger workers and a growing elderly population in need of care. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries relied on immigration to maintain a pool of workers. The pandemic brought a wave of automation to the labor market, creating fertile ground for the implementation of robotics as labor shortages contribute to inflationary pressure.
At the same time, a growing elderly population has created a shortage of health care and elder care workers across the advanced industrial world. Health care has traditionally been labor-intensive, but service robots could take over routine tasks, freeing humans free to deal with more complex work. Service robots could also help seniors live more safely at home.
Increasing use of robots has traditionally led to concern over loss of employment, particularly in manufacturing where robots were first introduced on a large scale. Unions and left-wing politicians have opposed robots; some have even proposed that they be taxed to disincentivize their adoption. These remain valid concerns, but the growing labor shortage has changed the terms of the debate. Instead of viewing robots as replacing humans, robots should be viewed as augmenting humans.
The combination of an aging population, low fertility rate, and low levels of immigration gives South Korea greater incentive to integrate robots into the labor force. By the end of this decade, it is easy to imagine South Korea ranking number one not just in robot density but the integration of robots and AI in all facets of everyday life.
By 2040, South Korea could become first country in world where humans are mostly freed of routine work and, instead, focus on a mixture of creative and managerial work. Combined with the productivity of robots, this could turn South Korea into the most research and creative intense economy in the world. It also holds out the hope for an increase in the quality of life for the long-overworked Koreans.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.