Local tech firms bet big on artificial intelligence

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Local tech firms bet big on artificial intelligence


After the epic man-vs-machine match between Google’s AlphaGo and Korean Go master Lee Se-dol ended in human defeat last year, Korean tech companies have been pouring money into developing artificial intelligence.

Kakao, operator of Korea’s most popular messaging app KakaoTalk, recently jumped on the AI bandwagon, establishing a subsidiary dedicated to researching artificial intelligence earlier this month. Its initial capital is 20 billion won ($17.43 million).

The importance of the new company, called Kakao Brain, was evident from the start. Kakao’s chairman, Brian Beom-su Kim, who has maintained a low profile by not involving himself in direct management for the past eight years, returned to take up the post of CEO at the new venture.

“It hasn’t been that long since competition over AI technologies gained momentum,” Kim told Kakao employees on Tuesday, according to one executive at the company, “but it’s true that the competition has entered a serious stage.”

“Entering the AI business is an inevitable choice under the current atmosphere in the tech sector,” the Kakao executive said.

The establishment of Kakao Brain signals the company is shifting focus away from its flagging on-demand services like taxi-hailing app Kakao Taxi to artificial intelligence.

Kakao is no novice in AI. It is already equipped with technologies for artificial intelligence, from voice and image recognition to natural language processing, all based on machine learning. In 2013, the company acquired Dialoid, a start-up that made possible text messaging with voice, and its portal site subsidiary, Daum Communications, has been running a search tool that can identify flowers through image recognition.

Although Kakao has yet to come up with details, speculation is high that the first AI product will be a chatbot running on KakaoTalk’s platform that works like a personal secretary. In a Facebook post, Kakao CEO Jimmy Rim suggested that the messaging app could become “a secretary that understands you the best, shopping and booking tickets for you.”

Kakao’s move comes as its rival Naver has taken aggressive steps with artificial intelligence. Its four-year-old R&D unit, Naver Labs, was spun off as a subsidiary on Jan. 2 with initial funding of 40 billion won. Naver will spend another 80 billion won over the next two years to focus on building artificial intelligence, robotics and autopilot technology to compete against the likes of Google and Facebook.

According to one source, an autopilot technology developed by Naver Labs has already reached a stage where it can control a vehicle in all but a few environments like severe weather. The unit’s translation app, Papago, is also comparable to Google’s Translate counterpart. Both use cutting-edge neural machine translation to get translations as accurate as possible.

In November, Naver launched a task force under the codename J whose main task is to commercialize technologies developed by Naver Labs and to bring them to global markets where its messaging app, Line, is popular. The task force’s first outcome will be a voice assistant similar to Amazon’s Echo, set for release in April at the earliest, a Naver spokesman said.

Mobile operators are also betting on artificial intelligence for future growth. In October, SK Telecom, the country’s top provider of telecommunications services, established an independent unit dedicated to AI called T Brain.

The company’s new CEO, Park Jung-ho, earlier this year vowed to invest 11 trillion won over the next three years in AI, the Internet of Things and high-speed 5G connectivity. The company scouted a 33-year-old artificial intelligence expert from Samsung Electronics to lead the unit.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]
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