Korea needs cooperation, focus to catch up with overseas IT giants

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Korea needs cooperation, focus to catch up with overseas IT giants

Major IT companies around the world are rolling out advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, but many see Korea as late to the party. While overseas competitors were throwing cash at the sector, Korea has hesitated to invest because of various factors like profitability.

According to the Institute for Information & Communications Technology Promotion, only 39 out of 119 research centers in Korea, including independent bodies and subunits of companies or universities, were developing AI technology. Among the 39, only 13 were either backed by private financial support or otherwise financially independent. In terms of manpower, 32 centers had less than 50 researchers while 16 didn’t even have 10.

Only recently has the Korean government begun large-scale, long-term projects like “Exobrain,” which aims to create an AI supercomputer comparable to IBM’s Watson. The government has invested 107 billion won ($89 million) into the initiative.

Korean IT companies are developing their own technologies as well, but it’s still too early to see any real achievements.

Experts say companies, universities and research institutes must cooperate in order for Korea to catch up in the IT sector. Since foreign giants like Microsoft and Google are already well ahead in commercial AI technology, Korea may not stand a chance if the nation’s companies go at it alone.

“Market demand, research centers and government regulation must be organically connected,” said Hwang Jong-sung, a managing director for the National Information Society Agency. “Rather than focusing on making the world’s first ‘development,’ we now need to focus on the world’s first ‘application’ of a particular technology.”

Substantive changes must also follow to increase investment and secure talent in the field.

“Test beds for artificial intelligence technology must be created along with financial support and tax relief,” said Jang Woo-seok, an analyst at Hyundai Research Institute. “Research environments must also be changed so that more talent will be interested in joining research and talent with different expertise may collaborate for convergence research.”

While Korea is a step behind, many say the nation still has a chance against global giants if it specializes in specific applications of artificial intelligence.

“One strategy is to focus on niche areas that competitors overlook rather than taking on the whole the industry and companies like IBM or Google,” said Kim Jin-Hyung, head of the Software Policy & Research Institute. “Since Korea is a leader in the medical, education and home appliances sector, specializing in these areas and starting from Asian markets may be an optimal plan.”

One of Korea’s biggest advantages is its fast Internet speeds, which make it an optimal place to analyze the kind of big data that artificial intelligence is often developed from.

“Considering big data was what brought artificial intelligence technology from research centers to the actual world, Korea already has good infrastructure that would enable it to develop leading AI technology,” said Lee Eun-chul, general manager of Treasure Data Korea.

BY SOHN HAE-YONG [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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