By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, April 15 (Yonhap) -- Imagine waking up in the morning to find your artificial intelligence (AI)-powered butler taking care of tasks, like controlling the room temperature to make it comfortable for you and adjusting lighting to the optimal level. The service doesn't end there, as it can select and play your favorite song while a personal robot serves you a cup of coffee.
Although some of these technologies may already be available, or just around the corner, Naver LABS -- a R&D subsidiary of South Korea's dominant Internet portal and search engine Naver Corp. -- is trying to go further, according to Seok Sang-ok, who has been leading the AI and robotics-focused research unit since early March.
He says Naver LABS, spun off as a separate entity in 2017 from its parent firm, is focusing on developing so-called 'ambient intelligence' technologies that deliver on-demand information and context-based services to a user at any time and in any place.
"The future of technology will depend on understanding the context of the user," Naver LABS chief executive officer Seok said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency at the company's headquarters in Bundang, south of Seoul. "We are focused on forecasting and providing the information and services that users need, even before they request them."
Seok, a robotics expert, said a team of top-notch engineers from both home and abroad is developing technologies that assist humans in their daily tasks and will revolutionize the way we live our lives.
Toward that goal, Naver LABS joined hands with South Korean home appliance maker LG Electronics Inc. in January to infuse its integrated location and mobility solution, eXtended Definition & Dimension Map (xDM), into the tech giant's guide robot, called Air Star, to upgrade its function.
The xDM platform is an advanced mobility technology that can be used in both indoor and outdoor settings and accurately analyzes location data in real time.
Naver LABS also showcased AMBIDEX -- a next-generation robotic arm that uses a cable-driven mechanism -- at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, to present its alternatives to conventional robots.
The robotic arm is revolutionary, according to Seok, as it overcomes various flaws of conventional industry robots by making interaction with humans safer, and allowing them to control the arm via a 5G network.
"The robot arm has to be light in order to be safe," Seok said. Conventional robots, for manufacturing purposes, are heavy and bulky, which makes them unsuitable for home appliances and could even be considered dangerous, he said.
AMBIDEX, weighing less than the average arm of an adult male at 2.6 kilograms, operates at a maximum speed of 5 meters per second and is capable of carrying up to 3 kg, according to Naver LABS.
"The robots currently under development still lack intelligence," Seok said, adding that the future robotics industry will shift from precision, repetitive and heavy-load work to operations centered on the home environment, with the next goal set to build robots that closely replicate a human finger.
He said Naver LABS is working hard to incorporate AI into its robot by working closely with experts from its European center.
In June 2017, Naver LABS acquired the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France, and named it Naver LABS Europe. The center, originally created by Xerox in 1993, was the first in the world to explore a number of technologies, notably in the field of AI.
"Current robots are good at performing a single task but are not capable of carrying out comprehensive tasks," the executive said. "I believe AI and robots in the future will serve a role of assisting humans and not replacing them."
Seok said that Naver LABS' ultimate goal is to build an AI agent inside of a robot that can accomplish a given task through interactions with its environment, a target to be achieved through partnerships with other companies.
"We want to find a good partner. There is nothing we can do by working alone," he said. "Future-oriented technology can further be created when we collaborate with leading technology companies to commercialize the technology," Seok said.
As an engineer with research experience overseas, Seok is excited about the Seoul government's recent move to adopt the so-called regulatory sandbox -- a mechanism for developing regulations that support a fast pace of innovation -- in the ICT sector.
"I am not really sure what kind of regulation is right but it is important to have an environment where technologies are used in the right place," he said. "I welcome the government's position that is preparing for the upcoming AI era."
On persistent concerns over whether AI and robotics will swallow up certain jobs, Seok said it would take "considerable" time for smart robots to carry out multiple tasks that could replace human beings.
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