In 1960, South Korea was poorer than two-thirds of the nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Today it’s the world’s most digital nation, with a per capita income of nearly $28,000, higher than New Zealand ($27K) or Portugal ($22K). This transformation largely took place during 1965-1985, and is known as the “Korean Miracle.”
But the transformation of the Land of the Morning Calm is far from complete. South Korea is pushing ahead with a host of interlocking technology initiatives bold enough to potentially make the period 2010-2025 a second Korean miracle, this time focused on what Seoul National University refers to as convergence technology.
The factors underlying the first Korean Miracle are fairly well understood by social scientists. They include:
What’s interesting is that all these factors are still there, and, as a combination, they still differentiate Korea from nearly all other major nations. Powered by these favorable conditions, Korea continues to move rapidly forward. But now, rather than merely catching up with the developed world, they are in a position to move ahead.
Korea’s economy is export-driven, currently focusing on electronics, automobiles, ships, machinery, petrochemicals and robotics. These industries were fostered by substantial government investment, and in many cases by protectionist trade policies. But now the combined juggernaut of Korean government, industry and academia is pushing the country in a new direction, aimed at taking Korea’s “most digital nation” status to a whole new level.
The Coming Convergence
One of the nation’s goals is to link all of their infrastructural systems together into a big, intelligent national knowledge network. Listen to Deputy Minister Lim, of the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (and how many countries have one of those?), who early this year announced that by 2020: “The city smart transportation system, the eco-friendly transportation & logistic system, the smart grid system, the local optimized multi-energy system, the city asset management system, the disaster prevention system and the digital river management system, the home healthcare system, and the transportation service for the disabled… will be all connected with the IT system.” Everyone in the international technology industry knows this sort of thing is feasible in principle, but from the perspective of US or European politics, it seems almost science-fictional. The Koreans may actually pull it off by 2020.
Note the theme of integration in this knowledge economy plan. We see the same meme in Seoul National University’s new graduate institutes, the “Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology,” whose areas of focus read like the top-level headings of an encyclopedia of today’s transformative technologies:
Samsung cranial implants, coming soon to an Interweb near you?
I lectured at the Institutes of Convergence Technology in November 2009, at a forum on “Cognitive Machines: Convergence of Biological and Physical Intelligence.” The topics discussed were rather similar to what one finds at US futurist conferences like the Singularity Summit or the H+ Summit — except that this was sponsored by the government at a major research university, and the talks were more densely packed with demos and equations. I was particularly impressed by Frank Park’s demos of gracefully moving, biologically-inspired robots, and some in-depth discussions of smart power grids and the uses of AI to forecast power failures and usage patterns. And then there was Byoung-Tak Zhang’s work on DNA computing for natural language generation: test tubes of DNA, manipulated to arrange themselves in patterns interpretable as meaningful sentences! SNU’s Convergence Technology thrust really impressed me. I know of no American or European university initiative with a similarly broad and deep futuristic technology thrust, seamlessly fusing the practical and the visionary.
Not only does the government provide systematic, well-conceived stimuli for advancing technologies, it also provides a conducive regulatory environment, unimpaired by the Luddite “ethical” worries that plague research in many areas, particularly biomedicine, in the Western world. Cloning research has flourished, including the first successful cloning of a dog, Snuppy, and the cloning of two females of an endangered species of wolves at SNU. Stem cell research has been heavily funded, and I personally know a group of Americans currently working on setting up a stem cell therapy center in South Korea, aimed at life extension and the cure and prevention of aging-related diseases.
And the focus on advanced technology extends from the upper reaches of the educational system right down to the youngest children. Korea is the first country of the world to bring high-speed fiber-optic broadband to every primary and secondary school; and promises universal distribution of free digital textbooks by 2013.
A Samsung Robot in Every Home By 2020?
On the same visit I visited Samsung, which last year passed HP to become the world’s largest electronics company (2009 revenue: $119.4 billion). I had been invited to give a talk on the applications of advanced AI to control robots and virtual agents, but I was surprised to find the audience was most interested in my affiliation with the Singularity Institute for AI, and they peppered me with questions about Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity. The questions tended to be far more supportive than skeptical. Not long after that, a team from KAIST — another major Korean research institute with close connections to Samsung — traveled to the US to visit representatives from the Singularity Institute, the Singularity University, and other futurist organizations.
Samsung Electronics plays a leading role in 60+ product categories and it also has a flourishing research division. As the government ties together Korea’s infrastructure into a nationwide IT network, and the universities create new connections between biotech, robotics, nanotech, smart power grids and the rest, Samsung and other Korean firms devise transformative electronic devices that are practical realizations of the same sort of radical convergence technologies that are pioneered at universities like SNU and KAIST.
As Korea’s infrastructure is turned into a vast information network, it’s easy to envision Samsung smartphones serving as the citizen’s interface to this new informational environment. Transportation, medicine, power, education — everything integrated into a single pool of knowledge, available to everyone via increasingly intelligent pocket-sized devices. Indeed, Samsung researchers are currently discussing the creation of AI software for turning smartphones into smart agents that communicate both reactively and proactively: telling the user what she needs to know when she needs to know it, and even carrying out communications for the user when she’s not available to do it herself.
While not as well known as Sony’s (now defunct) AIBO and Qrio or Honda’s ASIMO, Samsung has its own line of humanoid robots, the Mahru bots. The latest, Mahru-Z, was created by engineers at KAIST building on earlier Samsung systems, and serves as a robot maid. You Bum-Jae, head of KAIST’s cognitive robot centre at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, brags: “It recognizes people, can turn on microwave ovens, washing machines and toasters, and also pick up sandwiches, cups and whatever else it senses as objects.” Mahru-Z is not yet ready for commercial dissemination, but it’s clearly a serious step toward Korea’s stated goal of “a robot in every home by 2020.”
If, in fact, robots will be in every home, they’ll need to know how to interact with humans emotionally as well as physically. Last summer I had the opportunity to learn something about Samsung’s efforts in this regard, when Samsung engineer Hyun-Ryong Jung attended the Artificial General Intelligence Summer School that I hosted at Xiamen University in China. Among other topics, Jung told us about his work with Georgia Tech scientists implementing mathematical emotion models for humanoid robots. These models are inspired by cognitive science, but adapted to the particular requirements of digital beings and their interactions with humans. Among the interesting results found via studying the interactions of emotional robots and humans, Georgia Tech researchers demonstrated that younger people do better than older ones at recognizing emotions from robots’ facial expressions.
And there are equally fascinating possibilities on the nano-bio side. Samsung engineers recently filed a patent for carbon nanotube electron emitters, perhaps intended for use in a new generation of display screens. On the other hand, researchers in Israel and the US are now exploring the viability of carbon nanotubes as a tool for brain-computer interfacing: connecting computer chips to brain matter. The convergence possibilities here are obvious. Samsung cranial implants, coming soon to an Interweb near you? Or more prosaically, how about bold new devices allowing the blind to see, the deaf to hear far more clearly than cochlear implants, the financial trader and the biologist to experience the markets and the genome as immediately as we perceive the trees in the forest.
Korea’s Role in the Transnational Multilarity
Aside from the robot in every home, what might Korea look like in 2020 or 2025, when it’s powered by the government’s infrastructure/information integration, the convergence research insights of SNU and Kaist, and the technologies of Samsung and other firms?
Smartphones connecting not only with every other citizen, but every part of the country’s infrastructure? And, following the notion of the “internet of things,” every object as well?
How about not merely having robots in every home (the grandchildren of Mahru-Z) but homes that are robots? Not to mention factories, trains, buses, and cars with intelligence rivaling the people who operate them (or should we say, co-operate with them?)
Nanotube connections spanning ubiquitous computing fabric and brain matter?
Smart power grids that fix their own breakdowns and send power where it’s going to be needed, inventing new routing algorithms on the fly?
Virtual assistants that do our digital gruntwork and teach us new skills? Digital textbots instead of digital textbooks?
As always, the details are hard to foresee — but with the heady mix of convergent ideas and technologies that’s brewing, it’s easy to estimate that some collection of interlocking, amazing things will occur, binding together bio, nano, info and cogno on multiple levels ranging from the individual and her smartphone up to the whole integrated IT networked “national organism.”
A few months ago, I wrote an article for this magazine on the “Chinese Singularity,” exploring the possibility that the Singularity will be launched by Chinese researchers. Now I’m lauding Korea. What gives? Of course, the Singularity isn’t likely to be created by any one nation alone. In fact, it will look like a Singularity only from a distance. Up close, it will be more of a “Multilarity,” a network of separate but coupled radical advances, occurring at different places and times, building on each other and nudging each other forward.
China has a huge pool of researchers, and a willingness to fund innovation, which makes it a likely place to spawn breakthroughs. What Korea has going for it, according to my analysis, is a bit different, but related: a genius for technology transfer, for proceeding rapidly and effectively on the border of research and advanced development. This is also an American strength, but the Koreans do it with their own particular flavor, which has proved dramatically successful in some domains. For instance, Korean university labs have world-class hardware and do world-class science, but one thing that really sets them apart from comparable labs I’ve seen in other countries is the effectiveness of their industry-university collaboration. The Mahru-Z robo-maid, built at KAIST on foundations laid by Samsung, is a perfect example. And no nation equals Korea in terms of its passion for rolling out advanced technologies nationwide, for turning idea into infrastructure.
The “next Korean miracle,” if I’m right, will not be about manufacturing or electronic technology, so much as about the real world applied integration of various advanced technologies. Korea is putting money and attention specifically into making various technologies work synergistically together to do exciting things. I predict this will pay off for Korean firms like Samsung, for Korean universities like SNU and KAIST, for the nation as a whole with its IT-networked infrastructure… and of course, for the world at large, which is becoming increasingly integrated and technologically convergent.
I spent a little while searching for a clever Korean proverb to close out this article. I found some gems like “Don’t start your meal with the kimchi.” But the one I found to be most appropriate was rather simple, and I’ll show it here in the beautiful Korean alphabet, which is itself a masterwork of applied engineering, and arguably the most sensible alphabet of any major language:
“After great tribulations comes great pleasure” — or more simply, “hard work brings success.”